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Five Questions with Cheryl Adams, Reference Specialist for Religion in the Library of Congress Humanities and Social Sciences Division

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The following is a guest post from Cheryl Adams of the Library of Congress.

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

Cheryl Adams

I’m the reference specialist for religion in the Humanities and Social Sciences Division, so I work in the beautiful Main Reading Room. I’m responsible for recommending acquisitions in religion, philosophy and psychology; I work closely with area seminary students and faculty; I assist researchers with questions in person, by letter and through our online Ask a Librarian service. We field fun and challenging questions from around the corner or across the globe. Our division also teaches orientations to help researchers use our collections effectively.

In addition to questions relating to religion, when I work at the desk I might help someone researching the history of catsup, ideas about beauty in the 1860s, or wanting a list of consulting firms who helped incumbents win senate races, 1980-2012 (real questions!). I love the variety of both questions and researchers. And researchers in the Main Reading Room need only be 16 or older (and curious) in order to use our collections, which makes for a wide world of topics and interests.

Ellis Island by H. Russotto and Solomon Small, 1914.
Ellis Island by H. Russotto and Solomon Small, 1914.

Do you have a favorite item from the Library’s online collections?
Gosh, so hard to pick! What I love about anything that I might choose is how a researcher could begin with the item and use it as a jumping off point to explore the collections available online and in many reading rooms. For example, I’ll choose the Thomas Edison film of Emigrants [i.e. immigrants] landing at Ellis Island.   A genealogist might be interested in family arrivals in the United States through this port of entry. Someone else might be curious about what guidebooks these new immigrants could have used to explore their new city. The sheet music collection might draw the attention of a musician looking into the songs written about the Ellis Island immigrants. A labor historian might delve into our collections on the immigrant labor force and how it changed our country. Others might be curious about the customs, food or clothing from the many homelands represented by these new arrivals. In just these few examples we’ve traveled to the genealogy, business, music, folk life, culinary and history collections at the Library of Congress – and we’ve only scratched the surface of available materials and topics related to this short film. I didn’t even mention biography for Edison himself!

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

A few years ago I was in the stacks looking for an answer to a letter when I chanced across The Pat Boone Devotional Book. There was Pat Boone smiling cheerfully, if anachronistically, from the cover. I became curious about the way in which publishers of many faiths reach out to teenagers or particular groups of people and how that approach changes with the times. Our collections hold Bibles aimed at cowboys, working mothers, military veterans and toddlers. Because we don’t weed our collection of older titles, a historian could easily look at, for example, how a publisher of religious material might approach teens in the 1920s or 1950s and compare those with more recent publications like the New Testament for teens.  What I find interesting is that one can look at this topic theologically or through the lens of publishing or American cultural history.

Tell us about a memorable interaction with a K-12 teacher or student.
Because we serve those who are 16 or older, the main chance I have to interact with elementary or junior high students is at the National Book Festival (Coming Sept 5, 2015). I enjoy the energy of the children or teens as they pull parents toward a favorite author or ask for a second book mark for books they’re reading. I worked in the tent for young adults the year Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games, was to speak. The tent was packed an hour before her arrival with expectant readers.

What’s one thing you’d like to tell teachers about the materials that you work with or the collections in general?
It’s such a privilege to work with the collections at the Library of Congress – but what makes working here truly exciting is the curiosity of the researchers. There’s nothing I love more than working with someone who wants to dig in and learn more about something that intrigues, delights, confuses or fascinates them. We have so much here, perhaps 15% of which is digitized. These enticing digitized items are just the beginning…Curiosity is the key to unlocking more.


  1. Recently attended research intro class, conducted by Cheryl. Simply superb! It is so easy to distinguish the one from the other; the one who loves their profession and those who show up for work. Cheryl unquestionably belongs to the former. I wish I could work with, learn, from her.

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