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J. Edgar Hoover: The Crimebuster and the Catalogers

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Sometimes a primary source can provide unexpected insights into a familiar historical figure. Cheryl Fox, a specialist in manuscripts at the Library of Congress, describes records that illuminate the time a famed crimebuster spent alongside Library catalogers.

About a year ago, the producers of a movie about J. Edgar Hoover contacted the Library of Congress to arrange to shoot a scene where Hoover talks about his contribution to the development of the Library’s card catalog. The script described Hoover working at the Library from 1913 to 1917 as a messenger, clerk and cataloger.  Could the Library verify the claim that Hoover helped to develop the card catalog?

Few personnel records can be found in the historical records of the Library of Congress, but often some piece of information that documents a person’s employment can be found in an employee publication, telephone directory or the records of a division. Looking at these somewhat obscure primary sources can yield unexpected insights into a familiar historical figure.

Order Division, Library of Congress
Order Division, Library of Congress

One record of Hoover’s appointment comes from congressional testimony reporting on the backgrounds, salaries and positions of all Library employees in 1914.  The Librarian of Congress reported that John E. Hoover entered the service of the Library in 1913 as a Junior Messenger in the Order Division at an annual salary of $360.  A year later, he held the same position, but at an annual salary of $420.

Staff memos from the Order Division noted that Hoover’s work was considered satisfactory during his probationary period and that in 1915 he had been promoted from Junior Messenger to Clerk. Another memo contained a statement from “John E. Hoover” noting that his typewriter, which was in “constant use,” was in need of repair. What was he typing? It appears he was entering purchase orders from various divisions onto vouchers so money could be allocated for purchases.

This image from 1914 shows some of the senior staff of the Library.

While Hoover would not have played a role in developing the Library’s card catalog in the jobs he held, it is quite possible he would have seen and become familiar with it.  The Order Division was adjacent to the Classification Division, where the cataloging system was developed, and to the Catalog Division, where new materials were assigned unique catalog numbers.

As the movie J. Edgar made clear, Hoover’s work at the Library of Congress left a lasting impression on him.  Hoover was inspired not just by the catalog itself, but also by the high achievements of the people with whom he worked.  Hoover emulated their dedication, attention to detail, and shared their goal to make a large amount of information readily accessible.

Library staff answered the movie producer’s question by piecing together information from obscure primary sources. Ask your students to list evidence of something they did recently. How much of it might survive into the future? What would a historian learn about them from studying the pieces of evidence?

Comments (6)

  1. I´d like to know about the entire life of this personage of the history….I a great admirer of this kind of people, because is very interesting be a part of the history, and kow a little bit about persons with the capacity of handle lives of another political people.

  2. so, who’s the lone woman among the senior staff?

  3. Great question, Sharon M.! Sounds like an opportunity for research…

  4. J. Edgar: a man infatuated with himself.
    He had grandiose ideas and thoughts of bravado.
    His great power aided hiding his great
    Insecurities. A leader who demanded
    absolute loyalty.

  5. The movie ‘J. Edgar’ gives the impression that Hoover played a significant role in the creation and establishment of the Library of Congress card catalog — a role far larger than that indicated by this post. Hoover’s claim in reference to the card catalog (in the movie) is: “I helped organize it.”

    Though “I helped organize it” might technically be correct (i.e., even to move boxes of cards is technically “to help” in the organization process), I hate it when movies based on historical persons distort or exaggerate what the person actually did/accomplished/stood for/believed in. (Kind of like watching Oliver Stone’s ‘Nixon’).

    Just saying.

  6. The only woman among the senior staff of LC at that time was Jessica Farnum, secretary of LC, pictured above in 1914.

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