Write to the Request Line

A The ninth-graders' letterbunch of ninth-grade girls got in touch with their favorite radio station, making a song request for a tune by one of their favorite artists.  But they couldn’t resist the chance to raise that universal complaint:

“Why, why, why, why do you always repeat the same songs?”

It could have been from the suburbs of Cleveland or the boroughs of New York – but in fact, it took place in Afghanistan.  The girls’ request was delivered not by a quick call from a cellphone, but rather via an elaborately hand-decorated letter to Radio Azadi (Radio Freedom), the Afghan service of Radio Free Europe.  The station receives some 500 letters a month from its listeners, many of them beautifully decorated as is the tradition in Afghanistan.

More than 50 of these letters, including descriptions of their contents, went on display today in the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building at 10 First St. S.E. in Washington, D.C.  The exhibition, in the north orientation gallery on the building’s first floor, is titled “Voices from Afghanistan.”  It’s free and open to the public, on display from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, and will run through May 8.

An online version of this exhibition can be viewed here.  Also, see the PBS Newshour blog and video story on the exhibition here.

Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division at the Library of Congress, termed the letters – of which RFE is offering the Library 15,000 for its collections – “a fantastic resource … it’s the first time that the voices of ordinary Afghanis are being heard. We’re going to have a window into a segment of the population, across the board.”

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington initiated the exhibition; several members of Congress also contributed Radio Azadi letters from their own collections to the display.

The letters cover many topics. They include criticism by students of the conditions in their schools, young people writing love poems to the objects of their affection, villagers harpooning corrupt officials, prisoners asking for prison reform.  And yes – lots and lots of song requests.

Akbar Ayazi, who has been with Radio Azadi for five years, has been described as the “Jim Lehrer of Afghanistan.”  He’s presided over on-the-air presidential debates, and notes that the station carries political satire, which the audience delights in.

But what is astonishing is the lengths the station’s listeners will go to in “talking back” to the station, which is the most popular source of news and information in the country. Many listeners have to travel miles and miles to a town with a post office. Some cannot write, and must use the services of public scribes to convey their feelings. And yet, the letters pour in.

Increasingly, there are e-mails, but even many of these electronic transmissions are decorated – using such modern means as Photoshop.   

And those ninth-grade girls? They asked for a song by the late and very beloved Ahmad Zahir.

Burning Bright

Art and science, and sometimes art and politics, mirror each other in times of rapid change. Robert Hughes made that case in his history of modern art – noting it moved from straight representation to pointillism, cubism, and abstraction as science checked off its discoveries of the 20th Century, such as X-rays and the structure […]

Preserving ‘Herblock’ a Rewarding Job for Conservators

Ever wonder what goes on before an exhibition is mounted and displayed?  My colleague Donna Urschel takes an in-depth look at the preservation steps that were required for the Library’s “Herblock!” exhibition, on display through May 1: Preserving ‘Herblock’ a Rewarding Job for Conservators by Donna Urschel Shortly after the famous Washing­ton Post political cartoonist […]

New Optical Lab Brings LOC into 21st Century

(The following is a guest article about new preservation capabilities at the LOC by my colleague Donna Urschel, which was recently published in the the Library’s staff newsletter, the Gazette.)

Library of Congress Optical Properties Lab

Preservation Research Chief Eric Hansen explains how equipment is used to capture sound from damaged audio recordings. (Abby Brack photo)

For many decades, details of the 1791 Pierre L’Enfant Plan of Washington, D.C.—one of the many treasures at the Library of Congress—had been obscured. A long-ago application of a varnish preservative had darkened the map’s surface. But today, thanks to special imaging techniques, the invisible streets and special locations, including the “President’s House” and “Congress’ House,” pop out.

Hyperspectral imaging, a process of taking digital photos of an object using distinct portions of the light spectrum, is revealing what previously could not be seen by the human eye.

In room 27 on the sub-basement level of the James Madison Building, fascinating details of our historical heritage are coming to light in the recently opened Optical Properties Laboratory. Operated by the Library’s Preservation Research and Testing Division (PRTD) in the Preservation Directorate, the lab contains a hyperspectral imaging system, an environmental scanning electron microscope (ESEM), equipment for optical disc quality testing and a Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) system.

The new lab enhances the Library’s capability to use nondestructive analytical techniques to track changes in optical properties of materials, helping conservators, curators and librarians extend the life of the collections. Along the way, many interesting details about the documents are revealed.

The Optical Properties Lab is one of three new labs in the Preservation Directorate. Two more will open in the Madison Building in 2010: the Chemical and Physical Properties laboratories. The new equipment and redesigned space will bring the 30-year-old science labs of the Preservation Directorate into the 21st century.


Stephen Hobaica in the Library’s Preservation, Research and Testing lab tests for chemical markers of degradation of magnetic media. (Abby Brack photo)

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