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Five Questions with Sahr Conway-Lanz, Modern American Historian, Library of Congress Manuscript Division

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This post is by Sahr Conway-Lanz of the Library of Congress.

Sahr Conway-Lanz leads a gallery talk in the “Echoes of the Great War” exhibition, April 5, 2017. Photo by Shawn Miller.

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

As one of the historians in the Manuscript Division, one of my primary responsibilities is collecting archival materials that document the foreign policy and military history of the twentieth and twenty-first century United States. I also curate the division’s international manuscript collections and the four substantial sets of twentieth century presidential papers we have, those of Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Calvin Coolidge. In addition to collection development, I provide specialized reference assistance to researchers, assist with processing archival collections, and engage in public outreach to raise the profile of the Library’s manuscript collections including working with the media and curating public exhibitions like “Echoes of the Great War:  American Experiences of World War I” which opened this April.

Page from George S. Patton’s Diary describing his first flight on a biplane, June 22, 1917

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

I honestly do not have a favorite item in the Library’s collections, online or otherwise, because there are so many fantastic items in the Library’s rich and extensive collections. However, it is also because I am a historian and archivist and therefore, by training and profession, I tend to think of archival materials and other sources in groups and as collections. My focus and excitement are drawn to the interconnections and relationships among items and various sources.

If I were forced to choose, and I would probably have to be pelted with rotten tomatoes to do so, I might point out George Patton’s diaries recently made available on the Library’s website. General Patton was and remains a controversial figure. I find his diaries fascinating because they are so revealing about Patton’s thoughts, feelings, and ambitions…or at least they appear to be. If we believe that Patton was very conscious of history and worked hard to cultivate his public persona – and there is much evidence to support this interpretation – it raises the question of the degree to which Patton’s early writings, like his diaries from World War I and World War II, were shaped by these attitudes.

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

For me, it is often not single items that spark my curiosity but patterns in the collections of manuscript items with which I work. Working on the World War I exhibition that opened this spring, I noticed a memorandum describing a March 20, 1917, Cabinet meeting written by Secretary of State Robert Lansing. It raised questions for me of precisely why, how, and when did President Woodrow Wilson decide to lead the United States into World War I. In the meeting, Wilson questioned his Cabinet members whether he should ask Congress to declare war against Germany, but he did not reveal his opinion on the issue. Because of my questions, I put together a gallery talk, “Woodrow Wilson Chooses War,” in which I discuss how Wilson never fully explained his decision to go to war. His momentous decision for war can only be pieced together from second-hand accounts and Wilson’s sometimes contradictory public statements.

What truly captured my curiosity though was that Wilson’s decision on war was not the only area of his policy-making that lacks clear accounts from Wilson about his thinking. Unlike his contemporaries in the White House, Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft, Wilson rarely reflected in private writings, in correspondence, diaries, or notes, on his policy decisions. Most of what he wrote and left behind in the Woodrow Wilson papers at the Library of Congress and elsewhere was intended for public consumption, whether speeches or official correspondence or the like. Wilson and his papers leave many questions behind, which I think only makes him that much more fascinating as a historical figure.

Tell us about a memorable interaction with a visitor to the recent exhibit “Echoes of the Great War:  American Experiences of World War I.”

As an exhibit curator, it is not often you have the chance to speak with a visitor except when you are giving a tour. However, soon after the Library’s World War I exhibition opened, I was examining one of the cases I had been less involved in designing, and a visitor engaged me in conversation. We were looking at items concerning how the United States used conscription to raise the majority of its army for World War I, which was the first time Americans had done this. The gentleman, visiting from Massachusetts, told me about his personal experiences being drafted in the Vietnam War. It was terrific to see how the Library’s collections and these one hundred-year-old items connected with his life and spoke to him.

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

We all know that archival materials and primary sources are the foundation of the history that is written and taught, but I want to emphasize the importance of the connections between historical documents. It is rare that a single item from the Manuscript Division or any archival collection makes a significant point or reveals an important fact by itself. Usually, archival materials are pieces of a puzzle that are only part of a story or provide just a sliver of evidence for answering a historical question. Very often the primary sources are contradictory and incomplete. It is by stitching sources together, often many of them, through research and critical analysis, that controversies are engaged, historical interpretations emerge, and those compelling real-life stories that so many of us love can be told. Exhibitions or the showcasing of individual artifacts can lose sight of these vital connections that are so important to historical knowledge. Instead of  emphasizing only a few isolated quotes or details, or even a handful of documents, to illustrate the history we learn, I hope we can do more to raise awareness of, and stimulate interest in, the fascinating collections from which these evidentiary gems of history come.


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