This is post is by Cheryl Regan of the Library of Congress.
Describe what you do at the Library of Congress and the materials you work with.
I am a senior exhibition director in the Library’s Interpretive Programs Office, which is the office charged with developing and producing exhibitions onsite and online that show the public what the nation’s library holds and preserves. I have the privilege of working with collections from across the Library—from handwritten manuscripts by Sigmund Freud to the maps carried by Lewis and Clark as they searched for the Northwest Passage to materials gathered by the Library’s overseas offices in the wake of 9/11. In my many years here (26 and counting), I can’t think of an area in the Library that I haven’t worked with.
The scale and approach of Library of Congress exhibitions can vary significantly—small displays drawn from specific collections to sweeping thematic or historical surveys. I hope that visitors leave here feeling that they have made some kind of personal connection to something they have seen on view and understand the importance of preserving the past.
Do you have a favorite item from the Library’s online collections?
I can start my answer with one of my favorite Library exhibits, With Malice Toward None: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition. The backbone of the exhibition was Lincoln’s words in Lincoln’s own hand: the humble words of his autobiography, his stirring First Inaugural Address (I get choked up every time I read the last paragraph out loud), his first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and his Second Inaugural Address.
I stood in the exhibition alone on opening night waiting for the crowds to arrive. The power of these words in one space was palpable (I will swear the room was humming), but one of the most moving of the documents for me continues to be Lincoln’s brief farewell speech in Springfield, Illinois, which he gave before boarding the train for Washington, D.C., heading to his inauguration.
Lincoln had shaken a great many hands that day, and his usually clear handwriting becomes increasingly cramped until his secretary John Nicolay takes over recording the emotional speech. This day marks the last time Lincoln would see Springfield alive.
Share a time when an item from the collections sparked your curiosity.
I have to put two documents together from the Rivers, Edens, Empires: Lewis & Clark and the Revealing of America. First: Thomas Jefferson’s instructions to Meriwether Lewis outlining the nuts and bolts of the upcoming journey to search for a river passage that would connect the East and the West. Jefferson wants the explorers to take note of the flora and fauna: “Other objects worthy of notice will be the soil & face of the country its growth & vegetable productions, especially those not of the US. The animals of the country generally, & especially those not known in the US.” And second: this herbarium specimen gathered by Meriwether Lewis and sent back to Jefferson.
I wondered if subsequent government-sponsored expeditions followed a similar blueprint for exploring territory unknown. And in fact they had. Western expeditions, including those led by Stephen H. Long, Charles Wilkes, and John C. Fremont took along professional botanists, zoologists, and artists to help create a record of the territory out west and beyond. Those very specimens are studied today and actually used for testing by scientists throughout the world. In some cases, these “documents” are what remain of species gone extinct.
Tell us about a memorable interaction with a K-12 teacher or student.
Twenty years ago, I was taking a student and his family through the American Treasures exhibition and we came upon a page of Woodrow Wilson’s draft of his 14 Points Address done in shorthand. The student asked me it was a secret-coded message, which made me laugh as I went about trying to explain the purpose of shorthand with mixed success. Today, with abbreviations in text messaging being commonplace, audiences immediately understand the utility of shorthand.
What’s one thing you’d like to tell teachers about the materials that you work with or the collections in general?
There is a thread that runs through many collections in the Library of Congress – the record of the process of creating. Examining process can be a powerful lens whether it is the crafting the Declaration of Independence or the making of a Broadway production like West Side Story. Ideas tried, some rejected, others pushed around and formed into something new—the tracking of process reminds us that creativity and history do not happen in a straight line.