This post is by Naomi Coquillon of the Library of Congress.
Describe what you do at the Library of Congress.
I am an educator in the exhibitions office, which means that I organize tours and programs related to the Library’s exhibits and help develop new exhibits, too. I get to work with collections across the Library—that’s one of the greatest parts about my job.
What is your favorite item from the Library’s online collections?
Honestly, the thing I love best about the online collections is how vast and varied they are, so it’s hard to pick a favorite. But I think some of the most fascinating and complicated items here are the Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project. During the Depression, the federal government enlisted interviewers to record the stories of formerly enslaved people, who were at that time well into their 80s and beyond. There are layers upon layers of considerations to be made when reading the narratives—about the background and approach of individual interviewers, the context of the times, the edits made by leaders of the project, and choices made about how to represent enslaved people’s speech, among others. In part, sifting through these layers is itself a fascinating exercise, but above all it is powerful to hear these men and women bear witness to the experiences they endured. The narratives testify to the fact that slavery was not only an institution but also the lived experience of millions. Too often slavery is taught at a gloss or a high level, without an appreciation of the lives and perspectives of enslaved people. There are extensive lesson plans and resources related to these collections on the Library’s Teachers page.
Share a time when an item from the Library’s collections sparked your curiosity.
The diary of Irving Greenwald, who was a private in the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I, is really inspiring. The diary has been on display in our exhibition Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I, and you can see pages of it in the related online exhibition. But, all 450+ typed pages are available to read on our website. It’s incredibly detailed and he is an eloquent writer. I found it so captivating that I ended up commissioning a performance of it, and using his story as the framework for a family guide in the gallery. You can see the performance and read more about that process in this blog post.
Tell us about a memorable interaction with a library visitor.
I think my time working with this boy and his mother is one of my favorite memories. They were visiting the Library and stopped by our hands-on cart related to the Echoes of the Great War exhibition, which contains items that belonged to a soldier in World War I. The boy had fun trying them on and asking about their stories, and his mother is in the military, and so they were able to discuss how the items were similar to or different from equipment she uses today. It was a really rich interaction, enabled by primary source materials.
What’s one thing you’d like to tell teachers about the Library?
I wish more teachers knew how accessible the Library is. Recently I learned that our librarians answer over 100,000 online inquiries annually via our Ask a Librarian service, and they welcome focused inquiries from students. Our Researcher and Reference Services Division offers research orientation sessions for students and our tour docents are eager to assist teachers in meeting their instructional goals on exhibition tours. We serve individual researchers daily, and that ethos comes out throughout the Library. Ask us what we can do for you and your students!