Reading Rooms Reopen!

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden greets researcher Jay Driskell following the opening of the reading room. Photo: Shawn Miller.

Reading rooms around the Library are reopening to researchers for the first time in more than 14 months, including four this week, as the Library begins to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Performing Arts, Recorded Sound, Prints and Photographs and Moving Image reading rooms are opening this week, joining other rooms that opened on June 1.  It’s not quite yet business as usual — appointments are required, and sessions are from  9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1 to 4 p.m. — but researchers were in the building as soon as doors opened.

They came in the dozens — both familiar faces and newcomers — to engage with an assortment of collections. One photographed Sanborn fire insurance maps; another examined Colonial-era legal documents; and yet another scrolled through microfilmed newspaper issues for stories documenting historical U.S. railroads. Library staff members were delighted.

“I missed being with the collections and excitement of the reading room,” said Lara Szypszak, a Manuscript Division reference librarian, whose division opened June 1. “There’s something about it that is impossible to replicate in the virtual world.”

The reading rooms of the Law Library, the Geography and Map, and Serial and Government Publications divisions also opened at the start of the month. The reopening is the first step in the Library’s plan to gradually resume on-site public services as the COVID-19 pandemic diminishes. Reading rooms, along with all other Library facilities, closed to the public on March 12, 2020, to reduce the spread of the COVID-19.

To visit one of the four newly opened reading rooms, researchers have to complete a reference interview and make an appointment at least 24 hours in advance, either by telephone or through Ask-a-Librarian. Two appointment times are offered: 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. or 1 to 4 p.m. During these times, only a limited number of researchers can be present to allow for social distancing. The Library has also installed plexiglass shields to protect staff and researchers from infection, and everyone in reading rooms must wear masks and follow the Library’s health and safety protocols.

None of these measures dampened enthusiasm among researchers. “We had people calling and writing in droves in the two weeks leading up to reopening,” Szypszak said. On June 1, 30 researchers visited the four reopened reading rooms. By the end of the first week, 97 had.

Historian and author Jay Driskell took a 9:30 a.m. appointment on June 1. He is the chief consulting historian for the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University, and he came to consult the NAACP papers in the Manuscript Reading Room. He has used the papers extensively in the past to locate and document more than 1,000 cases of racial homicide in the South between 1930 and 1970.

Driskell first visited the Library about a decade ago to research his book, “Schooling Jim Crow: The Fight for Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School and the Roots of Black Protest Politics.” Since then, he has used multiple collections, both for his own research and writing and for his clients.

During the pandemic, he put the archival portion of his research on hold, although he continued to use the Library’s collections online for clients. The Prints and Photographs Division online collections “proved invaluable” for this purpose, he said, although “there’s only so much you can do with electronic sources.”

He explained: “There’s … something about the materiality of documents, about holding [them] in your hands that tells you something about the past you can’t get from an online database.”

Of the experience of returning to the Manuscript Reading Room, he said, “It really was fantastic to see everyone. … Even though I don’t work for the Library, I still view everyone here as my co-workers.”

Johanna Bockman, a sociologist at George Mason University, was equally effusive. “I’m a biased person” when it comes to the Library, she said, noting that she publishes a blog titled “The Library of Congress Is Great.”

She visited the Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room on June 1 to research microfilmed issues of the historical Washington Afro-American newspaper for a book she is writing about gentrification of Washington, D.C. “It’s wonderful” to be back, she said. “People are so helpful.”

Writer John O’Conor was in Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room the same day. He came to consult microfilmed newspapers published in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago between the 1880s and early 1900s for information about railroads. He’s been visiting the Library for 20 years and, like the others, was glad to return. “People remember me, I remember them,” he said.

For some researchers last week, it was their first visit. Benjamin Haller, a classics professor at Virginia Wesleyan University, is writing about the influence of Homer’s “The Odyssey” on Ralph Ellison’s work, and he came to the Manuscript Division to view the manuscript of Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and the author’s correspondence with scholars.

“It’s a huge honor to be able to come,” Haller said. “This is my initiation.”

Bruce Linskens is an analyst for the law firm Baker McKenzie. He visited the Law Library’s reading room to look at British Colonial appeal papers for an international case he is working on. He found both the manuscripts and librarian Nathan Dorn, “who pulled documents out beyond our initial request,” very helpful. “I hope I have another project that I can come back,” Linskens said.

Reference librarians had a similarly upbeat attitude about the reopening. “It went very smoothly,” Julie Stoner, a reference librarian in the Geography and Map Division. “Our patrons were happy to be back, and there was a feeling of celebration … as well as a sense of finally returning to normal.”

Librarian Gary Johnson said Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room staff tried provide the best service possible to patrons while the reading room was closed — he has been coming to the Library twice a week since July 2020 to respond to reference inquiries that required use of on-site resources. “But there are certain types of work that researchers can only do for themselves, so it is really satisfying to see that work begin again,” Johnson said.

Elizabeth Osborne of the Law Library said she is likewise pleased to facilitate access to collections, adding that she “missed the serendipitous interactions with … researchers and colleagues, which only occur when we are all together in the same room.”

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