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Five Questions with Abby Yochelson, Reference Specialist for English and American Literature, Main Reading Room

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Abby Yochelson
Abby Yochelson

The following is a guest post from Abby Yochelson of the Library of Congress.

Describe what you do at the Library of Congress and the materials you work with.

I’m a reference librarian in the magnificent Main Reading Room in the Jefferson Building. I think the Main Reading Room is the closest the Library of Congress has to a public library in the diversity of questions and researchers we see. I get to answer questions in-person, via our online Ask a Librarian service, by letter, and by telephone. I love that I learn new things every day because each question takes me in a different direction. While the Main Reading Room is primarily a gateway to the “general collections” – books and bound periodicals – many people start their research here. In addition to finding answers through the general collections, I’m good at directing our patrons to the 19 other reading rooms spread over our three buildings. I’m also thrilled when my own research takes me to collections in places like our Rare Book or Manuscript Reading Rooms. I answer questions in almost every subject, but the Main Reading Room specializes in material in the humanities and social sciences. I am the specialist in English and American literature – Where does this quotation come from? How do I find criticism on this short story? I’m trying to find a poem but I don’t know the author or the title, just this line. In addition to receiving most of the questions on literature, I make recommendations for the literary materials we should acquire from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. I also teach a lot of classes in how to do research at the Library of Congress. It’s more complicated than at most libraries because we’re ridiculously big and because we have closed stacks – you don’t pull the material off the shelf yourself the way you do in virtually all American libraries.

"O Captain! My Captain!"
“O Captain! My Captain!”

Do you have a favorite item from the Library’s online collection?

My all-time favorite teacher was Mrs. Campbell in sixth grade. One of her activities was to have us memorize and recite poetry a couple of times a year. While I was painfully shy back then, I thought the activity was terrific (once my turn was finished)! In our online collections, I really love the copy of Walt Whitman’s poem “Oh Captain, My Captain.” It’s a printed copy but it includes corrections in Whitman’s handwriting with a note to the publisher about “bad perversions.”

I never memorized the poem for my own recitation, but so many boys in my class did, I ended up being able to recite the poem just from hearing it so often. The boys also loved “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and recited it way too much! At any rate, the opportunity to see Walt Whitman’s handwritten notes is thrilling and the poem itself takes me back to a wonderful year in school with a superb teacher.

Share a time when an item from the collections sparked your curiosity.

A few years ago, I was scheduled to speak to a group of students from the University of Georgia who were splitting a month in the summer between Washington, D.C. and England to study Shakespeare. We’re right next door to the Folger Shakespeare Library, home of 82 copies of the First Folio and amazing manuscripts, books, and other treasures about Shakespeare and the Renaissance. Unfortunately, my talk followed the group’s visit to the Folger. The group wasn’t going to our Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room where we might have an item or two that could measure up to the standards set by the Folger for oooh-aaah material! I was talking to them about how to do research at the Library of Congress and focusing on Shakespeare materials in our general collections. I needed to find items that might capture their imaginations! I browsed in the stacks and pulled a concordance to Shakespeare to explain that people were crazy enough to do that sort of painstaking work before computers. And then my eye was caught by a very slim, fragile looking book titled Shakespeare’s Bones by C.M. Ingleby, published in London in 1883. When I flipped to the title page the subtitle really astonished me: Shakespeare’s Bones. The Proposal to Disinter Them, Considered in Relation to Their Possible Bearing on His Portraiture: Illustrated By Instances of Visits of the Living to the Dead.

I have received plenty of “who really wrote Shakespeare questions” over the years, but Ingleby was not pursuing that question. He primarily wanted to dig up Shakespeare’s skull so experts could determine which of the portraits best represented him. Controversy continues to this day about the Droeshout, Janssen, Cobbe, and Chandos portraits, as well as about the bust (Ingleby hated it!) adorning Shakespeare’s memorial in Stratford. Ingleby spends most of the 48 pages providing examples of famous people who had been exhumed – Schiller, Milton, Ben Jonson, Bacon, and others – as an argument for breaking into Shakespeare’s grave!

Keep in mind that I found this intriguing publication several years before Richard III’s bones were found under the car park in Leicester. DNA and other modern forensic methods provide a huge amount of information from a skeleton. Mr. Ingleby just wanted to check out Shakespeare’s skull to get a better idea of what he really looked like!

Tell us about a memorable interaction with a K-12 teacher or student

While it seems to be less common than a few years ago, we sometimes receive “class bombs” – dozens of online Ask a Librarian questions sent at the same time with pretty much the same question/assignment. Sometimes the teacher has provided a link to the Library of Congress’s page as a resource; other times one student finds our Ask a Librarian link and shares it with classmates. I received about twenty very broad and basic questions about Puritans in New England. While I enjoy answering students’ questions, these were so broad it was clear that no research had been done yet. At that time, the Library of Congress didn’t have any relevant digitized sources I could direct the students to. The email address for the students had the school’s name in it, so I phoned and asked to be connected with the library. The librarian was stunned when I told her about the questions and immediately figured out the teacher was brand new and hadn’t yet met with the school librarian to discuss research projects. The librarian said she had tons of resources and was off to find the teacher and arrange a special session for her class. I later got an email from the teacher thanking me for coordinating within her own school!

What’s one thing you’d like to tell teachers about the materials that you work with or the collections in general?

I begin and end all of my research orientation classes telling attendees to talk to the librarians. I think this is the one thing I’d like to say to this audience too. Our collections are marvelous, but finding what you need can be overwhelming. We’re the “knowledge navigators” helping you find a path. Our Teachers Page is amazing because it has pulled together packages of primary materials – pathways, if you will, through many different subjects. These packages/digital collections are incredibly helpful, but clearly can’t cover all the subjects you teach. So the best thing to do is just get on our website and explore. If you need some words of advice, use the Ask a Librarian or please come enjoy our riches in person if you are nearby. As teachers I hope you can also convey this message to your students – talking to school and public librarians is invaluable!

The 20th century myth you all have undoubtedly heard is that the Library of Congress has everything in the world ever published. I think the 21st century version of this myth is that everything in the Library of Congress has been digitized – or is just freely available out there online. I’m constantly reminding students (and I bet you are also) that not everything has been digitized. An enormous amount of material still exists in print form, possibly found in libraries near them!


Comments (2)

  1. Great piece! Love it. Abby is a great resource for not only the users of the Library of Congress but also for its employees. I’ve learned so much in brief encounters with Abby.

    Something else readers may be interested in — Abby is dedicated to promoting literacy with young people. She was recently honored as the Volunteer of the Year for the Everybody Wins DC Reading Program. In addition to being a reading mentor, she coordinates the 60+ Library volunteers to participate in the Power Lunch Reading Program at a local elementary school.

    We are very proud of Abby and thankful to have her expertise guide us!

  2. Abby, you’re my hero!


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