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Five Questions with Jennifer Harbster, Reference and Research Specialist, Science, Technology and Business Division of the Library of Congress

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The following is a guest post from Jennifer Harbster of the Library of Congress.

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

Jennifer Harbster
Jennifer Harbster

My official title is reference and research specialist for the Library’s Science Reference Section in the Science, Technology and Business Division. In other words, I am a science librarian. I help the public navigate the Library’s Science and Technology collections and assist with developing these collections. I mainly work with science materials, especially books and journals, published after 1800 that are found in the General Collections. However, you can find science material throughout the Library in rare books and special collections, manuscripts, recorded sound, and area studies. From time to time I get to work with these special collections. For example, I was researching the history of animal locomotion studies for a blog post and needed to consult an original copy of De Motu Animalium by Giovanni Alfonso Borelli (1680), which is held in the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections.

I like to think of myself as a renaissance librarian; I have many talents, interests and a broad knowledge of numerous subjects. The subject areas that I am officially responsible for are mathematics, physics, astronomy, atmospheric science, and agriculture. When I am not ‘playing’ with the collections I also spend time working with the public, providing research assistance, instruction on using databases, searching the Library’s catalogs, and creating search strategies.

Another aspect of my job involves outreach. I am a blogger for the Library’s Science and Business blog Inside Adams, manager for the Library’s science email subscription list, and mother of the Everyday Mysteries website. I also help coordinate science programs at the Library, work on committees, provide orientations and tours, and other things that support the Library’s mission.

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

Being the self-proclaimed LC weather gal, my favorite item from the online collection is Thomas Jefferson’s weather record. Generally speaking, Jefferson would take at least two observations a day: one in the morning, normally around sunrise, and the other around 3pm or 4pm. He also described the cover (clouds, fog, etc.) and made other notes. Later, he also added wind direction and speed.

Abraham Lincoln's Student Sum Book (ca. 1824-26) with problems on subtraction. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
Abraham Lincoln’s Student Sum Book (ca. 1824-26) with problems on subtraction. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

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

As one can imagine, working at the Library of Congress sparks your curiosity on a daily basis. I am obsessed with the pages from Lincoln’s Sum Book (aka arithmetic copybook) and had to learn more about the history of mathematics education in the U.S. Before the 20th century, personal textbooks were not easily accessible to students outside the big cities, so Lincoln copied sections from the textbook The Schoolmaster’s Assistant, Being a Compendium of Arithmetic, Both Practical and Theoretical in Five Parts by Thomas Dilworth to make his very own mathematics textbook. Dilworth’s volume was first published in London in the 1740s. An American edition appeared in 1769, and additional American editions appeared regularly for the next sixty years. Which edition Lincoln may have used to create his copybook remains unknown. Many of the Library’s editions of Dilworth’s book are held in the Rare and Special Collections. However, I have a copy of an 1815 edition in my office, which I have used to identify the lessons that are referenced in the Library’s Sum Book pages.

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

Being a librarian is extremely rewarding and there are countless moments that make you feel that you have made a difference. I especially love when I help inspire students to explore science and use libraries.

One memorable interaction involved a student from New Mexico who was working on his National History Day project. His project related to the story and history of the Santa Fe 2-10-4 locomotives. He did great research using local resources, but he was having a hard time finding a few key primary resources, so he sent his inquiry to the Library’s science Ask a Librarian service. I was able to find exactly what he needed, and more, using the Library’s amazing railroad collections.

Months later I received an email from him and his mom announcing that he placed second for his category in the state history competition and was going to nationals! I was honored to be a part of his success. The national competition takes place close to D.C., so I requested time off to go see his performance. After the competition he, along with other students from New Mexico and their families, visited me at the Library for a tour. I keep his thank you note and picture in my office to remind me what being a librarian is all about.

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

Many people do not know that the Library of Congress has one of the largest and most diverse collections of scientific and technical information in the world. In fact, the Library’s science collections contain more than seven million books, pamphlets and serials, plus scientific manuscripts and other special material collections. I am not sure what the number would be if we added up all the science material from all the collections, but I can say that science plays a significant role in our nation’s Library.

Comments (3)

  1. Keep up the wonderful work. Communicating the value of books and science to our young people is incredible. You are certainly a great chip of your Mom’s block! : )

  2. So happy to read that you developed a connection with a student who was working on his NHD project. I will continue to encourage my students to use the LOC website and the Ask a Librarian service. Thanks so much for your support with this wonderful program.

  3. I’m so glad to know more about what the Library has to offer teachers for use in the classroom! Jennifer, you make the task of choosing relevant primary sources seem much less daunting. I can’t wait to explore even more!!!

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