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Five Questions with Barbara Bair, Historian in the Manuscript Division

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This post is by Barbara Bair of the Library of Congress.

Barbara Bair
Barbara Bair

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

I’m a historian in the Manuscript Division and also the division’s exhibition liaison to the Library’s Interpretive Programs Office (IPO). One of the many wonderful things about my job is the access to primary materials of so many different kinds: We have over 65 million items in nearly 12,000 collections in the Manuscript Division alone, and they often inter-relate very closely with items in the other Special Collections divisions, including Prints and Photographs, Music, Motion Pictures, and Geography and Map.

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

Image 32 from the Journal of William Speiden, July 3, 1854-Feb. 16, 1855
Image 32 from the Journal of William Speiden, July 3, 1854-Feb. 16, 1855

I co-create digital frameworks as a content expert on the teams that produce our online presentations of collections with manuscripts. That has meant a lot of rewarding collaboration, both on the content and tech sides. For example, I worked with Janice E. Ruth in creating Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party, highlighting women activists in the radical wing of the Suffrage movement. I’ve also done frameworks for presidents, like Andrew Jackson, and for collections that I brought into the Library as an acquisition officer, like the American Colony in Jerusalem. One of my favorite items is the illustrated 1852-1854 journal of William Speiden, Jr., from the Perry expedition to Japan. It is a social history source, rich in eyewitness accounts, but it is also accompanied by intriguing art works.

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

There never is a time when they don’t, but I will tell a story of an experience I had while giving a gallery tour of Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass, an American Treasures exhibit I curated with Alice Birney, directed by Cheryl Regan of IPO. As I described Whitman’s hospital work among wounded Civil War soldiers, and described letters he had written to men who had recovered, a visitor in the audience pulled a carte-de-visite signed by Whitman out of his suit jacket, and said his ancestor had been one of those soldiers, and Whitman had sent him this portrait as a keepsake!

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

I love working with student groups and with the teachers who come for the Educational Outreach summer workshops. This Spring I gave a tour of our current Jacob Riis: Revealing How the Other Half Lives exhibit to a group of history honor students from Fairfax. They were so engaged. Afterward, they wrote me a note to let me know they’d gone back to their school “and voted this the best field trip ever!” Stacie Moats, the Education Specialist for IPO, invited Cheryl Regan and me to speak to the Teaching with Primary Sources Consortium that recently convened at the Library. Cheryl showed them the Riis exhibit web pages, and then we provided a tour of the real thing. One teacher told me how she had helped sponsor an event in Louisiana featuring descendants of children who had originally come out from New York City on what were called “Orphan Trains,” relocating impoverished urban youth to rural areas around the country. Another told me that one of the individuals featured in Riis’s urban reform story was his relative. People find deeply personal connections to our materials.Riis banner

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

Be sure to mix and match. The potential for interdisciplinary work and international work with the Library’s online materials is incredible. And don’t forget to check out the virtual exhibition sites that are listed separately from other online presentations on the Library’s portal page.


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