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On the Road in America’s Heartland

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I’ll be putting up a couple of back-logged posts from our “Gateway to Knowledge” curators, but in the meantime, I wanted to share this story by Mark Hartsell, editor of the Library’s newsletter, The Gazette, offering some insight on the Van Gelders and what it’s like to travel the country with a rolling version of the Library of Congress:

A self-portrait of the Van Gelders. Not pictured: their Scottish terrier, Pippi. (Library of Congress/Abigail Van Gelder photo)

Josh Van Gelder has a question.

“Want to buy a house?” he asks.

The query perhaps is not surprising coming from a guy with a post office box in Wyoming, an empty house in Minnesota, an office in Michigan, a 53-foot tractor-trailer behind him and, ahead of him, seven more months on the road.

When you travel 320 days a year, who needs a house?

Josh and his wife, Abigail Van Gelder, are the driving forces – literally – behind “Gateway to Knowledge,” a traveling exhibition designed to bring the riches of the Library of Congress to the heartland of America. They drive the exhibit into town, open the doors, welcome the guests and, after a couple of days, move on to the next destination.

The Van Gelders left Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26 in an 18-wheeler pulling a custom-built trailer that houses facsimiles of some of the Library’s most treasured holdings: the 1507 Waldseemüller map, the first document to use the word “America”; the 1455 Gutenberg Bible; the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence written in Thomas Jefferson’s hand; Walt Whitman’s poem “Leaves of Grass.”

Thirty-nine days later, Josh and Abigail had made 12 stops, driven roughly 2,431 miles and hosted 10,482 visitors on a journey that’s taken them from the National Mall to small towns across seven states – an arduous trip for most folks but only a modest beginning for the Van Gelders.

Abigail and Josh tentatively are scheduled to finish the current leg in Michigan in mid-December, refit the truck over the holidays, then head toward central Texas. The tour will winter in the warmer weather of the South and turn north in the spring. The Van Gelders expect to wrap up in late May, some 60 stops and 20 states after they began.

The exhibition was the idea of Abby and Emily Rapoport, the granddaughters of Audre and Bernie Rapoport, founding members of the Library’s private-sector support organization, the James Madison Council.

The original concept was a little smaller and a lot less mobile. The idea called for tabletop exhibits that would be shipped en masse to small-town libraries around the country. The libraries resisted – they just didn’t have the space or staff to handle it.

So the planners reconsidered, then pitched a new idea.

“We asked them, ‘What would you think if the circus came to town?’ ” says Jake Jacobs, the chief of the Interpretive Programs Office.

The “circus” would be a double-expandable tractor-trailer that opened to 1,000 square feet, accommodated all the exhibits, stayed for a few days, then moved on.

Everyone loved the idea.

Jacobs and his staff in February began to put together an exhibition that would break new ground for the Library – never before had the institution used a self-contained exhibit housed and hauled with a tractor-trailer.

“What we were trying to do was replicate the experience of a visitor coming to the Jefferson Building,” Jacobs says.

The design, fabrication and review continued right up to Sept. 20 – five days before the finished rig made its debut at the National Book Festival on the Mall.

The result of all that work: a monument on wheels emblazoned with giant images of the Library – the lettering is about 2 feet tall – that attracts curious crowds at rest stops, inquiries from truckers over the CB radio and, Josh says, plenty of thumbs-up from passing drivers on the Interstate.

Seth de Matties, the exhibit director for the Library, and Jacobs coordinate schedules with the Van Gelders, who make final arrangements with city and school officials. De Matties also fields inquiries from city, library and school officials who have heard about the project and want to know if the Van Gelders can somehow swing their way.

“It’s been very successful in bringing the Library to communities in other parts of the country,” Jacobs says.

The exhibition draws visitors of all kinds –congressmen and mayors on hand to cut ribbons and talk with guests; teachers; librarians; residents; inquisitive passers-by; and many, many groups of students.

In Winchester, Va., classes from James Wood Middle School rode over to visit the exhibit, parked right next to a pasture full of curious cows. Students took a 40-minute bus ride from West Virginia to reach the tour stop in Cumberland, Md.

Congressman Charlie Wilson hosted an honors English class in Marietta, Ohio. Belinda Scott, Ohio’s middle school principal of the year, led her charges through the exhibit in Twinsburg.

The exhibition and the Van Gelders get a warm welcome everywhere they go, but a few places seem extra special.

Picturesque Oberlin, Ohio, closed a street in the middle of the town for the exclusive use of the Library exhibition, a perfect location draped in fall colors and bordered by a park and Oberlin College. The truck was swarmed with students heading to and from class.

“We felt like rock stars,” Josh says.

In Troy, Ohio, the truck was stationed next to the high school’s football field. Students with painted faces stopped by on their way to the Trojans’ homecoming game, hoping to earn extra credit for classes. The local Fox station arrived early one morning to broadcast live from the truck.

The Van Gelders received a prime spot at the foot of the state capitol in Charleston, W. Va. – and a bonus tour that took them to the top of the majestic, 292-foot dome. The exhibit spent a couple of very rainy days by the water in Canal Park in Cumberland. Visitors practically needed canoes to get to the door, Abigail says, but they came anyway.

“When people learn the purpose of the tour is to go to small towns … that makes it so much more special,” she says. “They realize it’s coming just for their community.”

Escorting special pieces of our cultural heritage along America’s highways and byways is a way of life for the Van Gelders.

Abigail and Josh, who were college sweethearts at Western Illinois University, have worked for two years for Mobility Resource Associates, a Michigan-based company that puts on 20 to 30 traveling exhibitions at a time.

The idea of conducting such tours for a living seemed strange at first. But the Van Gelders found the work perfectly suited their interests, experience, talents and temperament.

Abigail had a background in marketing. Josh was a former Marine and social studies teacher who – crucially – also held a commercial driver’s license.

“We had no idea that every job we had from childhood to college was training us for this,” Abigail says.

Says Josh: “This is really what I wanted to do; I just didn’t know it at the time.”

Now the Van Gelders travel the country, hosting exhibits on subjects ranging from the Library to Lincoln. Duty sometimes calls on them to serve on projects not quite so glamorous – “Reflections: the American Funeral,” for instance, an exhibit on burial traditions that toured funeral homes, conventions and fairs.

The Van Gelders say each tour has its own particular pleasures, but the Library gig has been special. “And we’re not just saying that, either,” Josh says.

Occasional meetings with friends and relatives scattered along the way help break up the monotony of the constant travel, and the Library’s tour schedule works out well around the holidays – Josh and Abigail will be able to spend Christmas Day in East Dubuque, Ill., with his folks.

That will be nice, but, really, they wouldn’t want to be any other place than on the road and on their way to any town in America the Library chooses to send them.

“We feel very fortunate to be able to take this out, and we try to represent the Library as best we can even though we are not part of the Library,” Abigail says. “We are a rolling billboard.”

Comments (4)

  1. A magnificent exhibit for any and all Americans. 10482 visitors and 39 days? Doesn’t seems like a million or so visitors should be more would be more appropriate. Sorry, just did the calc, 25,000 a day in a 53 foot trailer might be a bit much. Anyway, this exhibit could spend a year in Southern California alone, I beleive. When is it coming? One more thing, how do I get this job?

  2. will they come through Elgin or Rockford, Illinois ?

  3. “Gateway to Knowledge” what a wonderful idea! Isn’t it amazing what can happen when a couple has had such a varied background and find the perfect job?
    When and where in Central Texas will the Library History rig arrive?

  4. I do really like the American life,on the road there si so many thing to learn.

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