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Five Questions with Michelle Krowl, Civil War and Reconstruction Specialist, Manuscript Division

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The following is a guest post from Michelle Krowl of the Library of Congress.

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

Michelle Krowl
Michelle Krowl

As the Civil War and Reconstruction specialist in the Manuscript Division, my primary responsibilities are helping to expand our collections and make them accessible to the public. On a day-to-day basis that can involve recommending acquisitions and working with donors of collection material, helping patrons discover material relevant to their research, participating in the Library’s effort to digitize Civil War collections in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, co-curating exhibits and small displays of Civil War materials, and doing public outreach to promote awareness of what the Manuscript Division and the Library of Congress have to offer. The materials I work with are typically collections of personal papers, which usually contain correspondence and diaries, but can also include photographs, scrapbooks, unpublished manuscripts, an assortment of printed material, and sometimes even three-dimensional objects. My collections also range from those of average Americans to presidents of the United States, which offer a variety of experiences and perspectives on events from the mid-to-late 19th century.

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

Abraham Lincoln, text of “Blind Memorandum,” August 23, 1864, Abraham Lincoln Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

With so much from which to choose, that is a tough question! A perennial favorite is what we refer to as the “Blind Memorandum,” written by Abraham Lincoln on August 23, 1864. With the war going badly that summer and facing a presidential election in November, Lincoln and many of his allies feared he would not be reelected. He wrote a memo pledging to work with the president-elect to save the Union between the election in November and the inauguration in March (inaugurations were on March 4 in those days) because any Democrat would have been elected on some form of peace platform. Lincoln folded the memo, glued it shut, took it to a cabinet meeting and asked his cabinet members to sign the outside. They signed it without knowing what they had signed. Things began going Lincoln’s way soon after, and he was reelected in November. Only then did he share the contents of the letter with his cabinet. I’m fond of this document not only for the novelty of all those important signatures on one document, but also because it serves as an excellent reminder that Lincoln was not always popular in his own time and his reelection in 1864 was not assured. The memo also demonstrates Lincoln’s extraordinary dedication to saving the Union and the promise of emancipation, and his willingness to put the cause ahead of his own ego. The “Blind Memorandum” is in the Abraham Lincoln Papers. For those interested in learning more I wrote a blog post on the document.

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

A different collection item sparks my curiosity practically every day! But while searching for items that would represent different voices for our “Civil War in America” exhibition, I came across a reference to diaries written by a young man in Macon, Georgia, during the war. The diaries were never “lost,” but perhaps overlooked, and they turned out to be an extraordinary record of what a teenaged invalid on the Confederate home front experienced during the Civil War. LeRoy Gresham recorded the news he heard, what he read, the prices of consumer goods, as well as the precarious state of his health and the medical remedies he was given. He was also very literate and observant in his diary entries. LeRoy’s diaries sparked my curiosity about his life and the origin of his physical injuries, which encouraged me to do further research on him. His story also attracted interest from the public, which prompted the Manuscript Division to digitize the Gresham family section of the Lewis H. Machen Family Papers. As LeRoy was about the same age as middle school and early high school students during the time he kept his diaries, I hope that teachers may also find his diaries and letters useful for their Civil War curriculum.

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

Often we do not know how our materials are ultimately used or implemented into lesson plans. During one Summer Teacher Institute, however, I helped a school librarian find a primary source related to Theodore Roosevelt’s 1903 trip to Yosemite with John Muir. She later reported that the lesson plans she created during her time at the Library of Congress were a hit at her school, and she ultimately included them in conference presentations and a published article. I was thrilled for her success, and glad to know that Library of Congress resources had played a contributing role.

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

I would remind teachers that as accessible and wonderful as the materials currently online are, they represent only the tip of the iceberg as to what is available at the Library of Congress. In the Manuscript Division alone we hold approximately 63 million items in over 11,000 collections, making it is impossible to put everything online. Teachers who have the chance to visit the Library of Congress should make time to explore the collections available only on-site; they are sure to find materials suited to their lesson plans and to share with their colleagues. Doing hands-on research will be a valuable experience for teachers! They will find remarkable materials, and can share with their students the lesson that not everything is online and available at the click of a button or swipe on the screen. Hands-on exploration of manuscript collections can be fun and rewarding, whether it is done at a national institution like the Library of Congress, or a local history room in a hometown library.


Comments (3)

  1. I remember when Michelle Krowl took a group of 2012 Summer Teacher Institute participants on a tour of the Civil War in America exhibition that she had curated. Afterward, we had a chance to touch and examine Civil War artifacts. I, too, was drawn to the LeRoy Gresham diary, probably because it was written by a boy the same age as many of our students, but also because it represents the Confederate home front point of view. I also remember one history teacher who cried out with delight when he got to open an album to his favorite Mathew Brady photograph in the original!

  2. Hello, Mary! I remember your group and always think of the teacher you mentioned whenever I see the “Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter” photograph from Gettysburg. On the exhibit tour we may have looked at one of the Charles Wellington Reed letters on which he drew vignettes of camp life. That collection is now online The collection has many visual elements to it (both the wonderful illustrations on his letters home and his sketchbooks), so you and your students may enjoy this collection as well.

  3. Michelle is very professional and helpful. She helped me research primary sources on Major Martin Delany when I attended the 2014 Summer Teacher Institute as a volunteer docent at the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, DC.

    Michelle also provided useful insight about Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address when that document was on public display in 2015.

    Julian Meade

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