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Half portrait of a smiling Kathy Woodrell, seated at a table in the Library, with shelved books in the background. Her arms are folded on the table in front of her.
Kathy Woodrell. Photo: Mark Dimunation.

My Job: Kathy Woodrell

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For three decades, Kathy Woodrell helped bring the Library’s decorative arts collections to light. She recently retired. This story also appears in the January-February issue of the Library of Congress Magazine.

Describe your work at the Library.

I served as the decorative arts and architecture reference specialist for the General and International Collections. I responded to thousands of questions in person and virtually, identified new resources to enhance the collections and presented many programs and events. I often gave art and architecture tours of the historic Main Reading Room; it was an honor to provide service in this magnificent space.

The decorative arts encompass the history and study of the design and decoration of utilitarian items, including furniture, glass, wood, metal, ceramics, costume, clothing, textiles and crafts. A yearlong special assignment in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division enhanced my knowledge of antiquarian books and encouraged me to recommend decorative arts works for that collection.

Identifying a cherished family object, reuniting childhood pen pals, collaborating with the incredibly knowledgeable staff and mining the expansive collections were incredibly satisfying. I retired from my dream job in 2023 with 34 years of public service at the Library.

How did you prepare for your job?

I was exposed early to architecture, antiques and textiles. My great-grandmother had me quilting at 6 and sewing clothes by 12. My grandmother, an antiques dealer, taught me to look at objects and ask: “What is it, who made it and what do you think it’s worth?” My mother’s distaste for antiques and love of modernism also informed my design aesthetic.

I was raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, home to Frank Lloyd Wright’s only “skyscraper,” the Price Tower. Its unorthodox angles, textiles and furnishings fueled my childhood imagination.

I hold a Bachelor of Science degree and a master’s in library science.

What were some of your standout projects at the Library?

I participated in many collaborative displays, tours and presentations on topics including Civil War fashion, Georg Jensen jewelry and modernist furniture. Some coincided with exhibitions at local museums; others featured authors and collectors.

I worked closely with students and faculty in the Smithsonian’s decorative arts and design history master’s degree program for 24 years, assisting with thesis research and advising emerging scholars how to effectively mine the Library’s rich resources.

During the AIDS crisis, I helped make a quilt panel for the NAMES Project to memorialize Library employees who had succumbed. I was honored to teach staff how to sew the name of a beloved person onto the panel.

What are some of your favorite collection items?

The Library’s collections of early journals, magazines and pattern books from the 19th century forward are extensive and invaluable. I adore a small 17th-century book of Psalms with exquisite silk embroidery and seed pearls in Rare Book’s Rosenwald Collection.

Favorite items I added to the Rare Book collections include: a resist-dye pattern book with pages dyed in indigo (1791-1822); a two-volume set of embroidery patterns, each with a silk-worked sampler (1795-1798); a unique work with diagrams and suggestions for improving the Jacquard loom, with fold-out patterns and silk samples (1839); a four-volume set of 600-plus original textile designs from a Parisian design firm (1848-1852); and so many more!

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Comments (12)

  1. I signed up for updates and notifications for the Library of Congress and loved reading about Kathy Woodrell, with all the divisive nature of today, I wish signing up for this would be a requirement for all public schools from elementary to high school, so they can see what makes the USA a great country and how it evolves for the better.

    Sincerely,
    Stacey Lee

  2. Those favorite items sound amazing. If there are digitized versions (or catalog records) could you please add the links to them?

    • Hi,

      Please try our Ask a Librarian service, which will put you in touch with a reference librarian, just as if you walked into the Library itself! These items could fall in a couple of different collections, so you might want to start with the “humanities” tab or “ask a general question.” Here’s the link: https://ask.loc.gov/#s-la-box-83050-container-tab0

      Good luck,
      Neely

  3. Your passion always shown through in everything did. It was a delight to work with you and learn from you.

  4. Bravo on a feat career. I see you are especially interested in textiles. Me too! Could you send me the reference for the books in the last paragraph please? Especially the resist-dye pattern book. The GWU Textile Museum where I am a docent has a fabulous Ikat exhibit now and it may relate in interesting ways.

    • Hi,

      Please try our Ask a Librarian service, which will put you in touch with a reference librarian, just as if you walked into the Library itself! These items could fall in a couple of different collections, so you might want to start with the “humanities” tab or “ask a general question.” Here’s the link: https://ask.loc.gov/#s-la-box-83050-container-tab0

      Good luck,
      Neely

  5. Kathy, thank you for your service and contributions to the study of material culture at LC. Your influence will be missed. Best wishes.

  6. Does your work subjects include any special cameras? If so, could you list a few for me?

    • Hi,

      This is getting to be a popular answer an this thread, but…pleasse check with our Ask a Librarian service. Direct them to the blog post and ask them to please follow up wth Kathy’s colleagues. The link: https://ask.loc.gov

      Thanks for writing,
      Neely

  7. Congratulations to Kathy on her retirement and next steps. Best wishes for my favorite librarian, Lon

  8. Do not set aside all that you have done in your career, nobody can ever take those memories away! Thank You for your honorable efforts and your constant love of books. I can only hope that others will appreciate you and follow in your footsteps. Cheers to you each and every day,!!!!!!!!!
    Barb Charett (a very old Book lady and do not regret it)

  9. Thank you, Kathy! Your support was wonderful when I was working on my graduate coursework and then my thesis on contemporary fiber art. It was so nice to see you again at the ending of my graduate program two years ago–I was especially touched that you remembered me from 14 years ago! I wish you a very happy and relaxing /rewarding retirement.

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