For years now, Saundra Rose Maley has encouraged her English composition students at Montgomery College in Montgomery County, Maryland, to think of themselves as detectives. The setting for their investigations: the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. Their task: to scout out primary sources for novel or surprising details about historical figures and write a research paper about their findings.
Late last year, Maley shared her thoughts about the assignment in a blog interview. “Every semester, there are at least five, maybe more, students who turn out to be excellent researchers and discover that they really like doing the work,” she said. “Some even decide to change their majors when they discover something intriguing about their research subject.”
Now two of Maley’s students — Lorena Rodriguez and Stephanie Salinas — talk about their experience doing research at the Library. Both chose to explore papers of notable women in American history. We are publishing their comments today as part of the Library’s celebration of Women’s History Month.
Tell us a little about your background.
Rodriguez: I was born in El Salvador and came to the United States when I was 10 years old. I live in Laurel, Maryland, with my parents, younger sister and twin sister. I am majoring in business at Montgomery College.
Salinas: I was born and raised in Washington, D.C., but my family is originally from El Salvador. I transferred to Montgomery College in 2018 from Trinity Washington University. I am majoring in general studies while I complete my prerequisites for nursing. I also volunteer at the Children’s National Hospital, and I have volunteered at other local clinics.
What was your reaction when you first heard about the assignment?
Rodriguez: I had high expectations, because history is something I’m passionate about. But I was a little concerned about going to the Library of Congress for research – I had never been to the Library before, and I did not know what to expect.
Salinas: When I first heard about the assignment, I was a bit intimidated, because I had never worked with primary sources before. But I love doing research and learning about new things. Looking back, Professor Maley’s class was one of my favorites. It challenged me and taught me a lot about primary sources and other scholarly resources.
Who did you research and how did you start?
Rodriguez: I decided to research Clare Boothe Luce, because she was a politician and a writer – that got my attention immediately. I love to write, and I’m interested in politics. The fact that she was a woman made it feel more personal and made me even more curious to research her story. I started by setting a calendar with deadlines and outlines. I also asked Professor Maley as many questions as I could about Luce and searched for biographies and books about her.
Salinas: I researched Elizabeth Blackwell, the first women to receive a medical degree in the United States. I chose her because I’m interested in a career in the medical field, and I want to understand the history of women in medicine. Also, I am really passionate about women in male-dominated industries and occupations, and the Library has an extensive collection of her family’s manuscripts. I started by looking at finding aids about Blackwell, and then I did some research on my own before heading to the Library. I worked with microfilms there, which definitely took some time to get used to.
What interesting or surprising discoveries did you make?
Rodriguez: I made many interesting discoveries. But in the diary of Luce’s daughter, Ann Clare Brokaw, I discovered that Luce and her daughter did not have a great relationship – Brokaw complained about her mother’s attitude. Another interesting discovery was Luce’s relationship with Bernard Baruch. I read quite a few letters between the two that made it seem as if their friendship was very intimate. In one letter, Baruch complained about Luce not returning a message.
Salinas: I was completely unaware of all the struggles Blackwell faced growing up and while pursuing her education. I came to the conclusion that she was actually a really sad individual. She did so much and contributed to science in so many ways. But looking at several of her letters, you can really see how alone she felt even though she was surrounded by all these people. Still, she was a true inspiration to so many women in her time who wanted to pursue medical careers.
What was your experience like working at the Library?
Rodriguez: My experience was great. When I arrived at the Manuscript Division, a staff member helped my friend and I get started. From that moment until I finished my research, the staff was very polite and helpful.
Salinas: I have lived in the District of Columbia my whole life, but I had never visited the Library. My first visit, I got lost and went to the Jefferson Building instead of the Madison Building. Getting lost was probably one of the best things that happened to me, because the Jefferson Building is beautiful, and the staff is great. Working at the Library was a true honor. The staff of the Manuscript Division was really helpful – Patrick Kerwin of the division suggested certain boxes to look at, and other staff taught me to use the microfilm. My favorite boxes were the one including articles and books Blackwell had written. I also loved looking at the miscellaneous folder, because you never knew what interesting thing you were going to discover that day.
How would you describe the value of the assignment?
Rodriguez: It was important to me, because it took me out of my comfort zone and challenged me to do something I wouldn’t normally do. It made me realize how much I can genuinely enjoy going to the Library of Congress and doing research for myself.
Salinas: I learned a lot about myself as a writer and a researcher. I enjoyed how the assignment challenged me to look at primary sources, something I had never done before. Anyone would be lucky to take Professor Maley’s course. I was kind of upset that it eventually came to an end. I really encourage anyone who wants to look at primary sources to go to the Manuscript Division at the Library, because you never know what you are going to discover.