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Five Questions with Ken Drexler, Digital Reference Specialist, Digital Reference Team

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Ken Drexler
Ken Drexler

This post was written by Ken Drexler of the Library of Congress

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

I am a reference specialist with the Digital Reference Team (DRT). The DRT is responsible for helping our patrons navigate and better utilize the Library’s digital collections. My subject specialty is political science and U.S. history, with an emphasis on congressional and presidential research. I respond to reference questions received through our Ask a Librarian service, participate in workshops and webinars, and create Web guides related to the Library’s historical digital resources. I’ve created Web guides on such topics as famous American documents, U.S. presidents, and presidential elections. Recently I updated our guide to World War I materials, which contains links to online photographs, documents, newspapers, films, sheet music, and sound recordings from the war. With the centennial of the U.S. entry into WWI approaching, I expect that the WWI guide will be particularly useful for teachers and students.

Woodrow Wilson's speech notes, in shorthand, for his "Fourteen Points" address, January 8,1918]
Woodrow Wilson’s speech notes, in shorthand, for his “Fourteen Points” address, January 8,1918

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

One of my favorite items is a copy of Woodrow Wilson’s speech notes, in shorthand, for his Fourteen Points address. Wilson often used shorthand throughout his career, a skill he perfected as a college student. In this document Wilson outlined the basis for the peace treaty to end World War I, including his call for a League of Nations. I always enjoy showing this document to teachers and asking if anyone can read it. After they laugh, the answer is invariably “no”, although I remain hopeful that one day we will find someone to decipher Wilson’s shorthand! Luckily, a transcription of the Fourteen Points is provided in the record so that teachers and students can use the document in the classroom.

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

As an avid music fan, I always enjoy exploring the historic sheet music collections that are available on the Library’s Web site. Recently I was looking through the World War I Sheet Music collection when I came across a number of songs from the peace movement, most of which were written prior to the United States entering the war. When I think of anti-war music I usually think of the Vietnam War-era, so it was fascinating to find songs like “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier” and “Neutrality Rag” that were popular at the time. With so many print and online resources available at my fingertips, I was able to dig a little deeper and learn more about music from WWI and its impact on public opinion. The vast majority of this collection consists of patriotic songs that were written after the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917, including parodies of peace songs such as “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Slacker.”

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

For me it’s not one specific interaction that stands out. Instead, when I first started at the Library of Congress I was struck by the large number of Ask a Librarian questions submitted by students and teachers about the American Revolution and the Early Republic.

The “original Rough draught” of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson, June 1776
The “original Rough draught” of the Declaration of Independence
Thomas Jefferson, June 1776

Although the Digital Reference Team receives requests on a wide variety of topics, it seems as if questions about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Founding Fathers are perennial favorites for our K-12 patrons. Fortunately the Library’s digital collections are particularly strong when it comes to primary source materials from this time period. Some of the more heavily used digital collections include the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, as well as A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, which contains the records of the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, and the United States Congress from 1774 to 1875.

One of my favorite items to show teachers is Jefferson’s “original Rough draught” of the Declaration of Independence with its scratched-out text and inserted words, including a few edits attributed to Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.  In addition to its obvious historical significance, hopefully this document will inspire students to continually revise and edit their own writing!

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

The size sheer size and complexity of the Library of Congress Web site can be a little overwhelming to new users, which is why I would strongly encourage teachers to utilize the lesson plans and other resources available on the Library’s Teachers Page. The staff that works on the Teachers Page has done an incredible job of compiling and packaging digital materials that are ready to use in the classroom. In particular, I often refer teachers, as well as other researchers, to the Primary Source Sets. I also refer teachers to the Web guides created by the DRT. These guides compile digital materials that are available throughout the Library’s Web site on a particular topic or person.  In addition, each guide provides links to external Web sites and a bibliography containing selected works for both a general audience and younger readers. The Library’s Web site is huge and it’s easy to miss something even for the experienced researcher. I hope that these guides, along with the materials on the Teachers Page, save teachers time and effort and allow them to focus more of their energy on actually teaching and directly interacting with students.

Comments (5)

  1. What an amazing job! Thank you also for the “short cuts” you listed for research.

  2. Thank you for your efforts in preserving America’s cherished antiquities. It’s good to know there are still people concerned about the importance of our collective past.

    I’m planning a field trip to Capitol Hill during Spring, 2017. What types of learning opportunities would you be able to provide to a class of 25 10th graders visiting Washington, D.C.?

    • Good afternoon and thanks for the compliment. You will want to contact our Visitor Services Office to schedule a tour of the building or of one of the exhibitions.

  3. You have questions about the trail of tears of Oklahoma. Any information that you may have as far as that is concerned.

    My grandmother and her father, Mr land
    Owned half of Oklahoma, and we were trying to recover it for historic reasons, creates an opportunity for the United States of America to correct an injustice in our history. Please let us know any information you may have. Thank you !
    Kilgore land family

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