This post is by Susan Mordan of the Library of Congress.
Describe what you do at the Library of Congress.
I am the Volunteer Program Specialist for the Library’s Visitor Services Office, and I help recruit, train, and manage our volunteer corps of over 340 people. Millions of people come to the Thomas Jefferson Building every year and our volunteers serve as customer service specialists to help visitors find what they are looking for – how to become a researcher, navigate the building, go on a tour of the historic Jefferson building, or find out where the song they sent in for copyright lives at the Library. Our volunteers come from varied backgrounds including knowledge lovers, teachers, students, and professionals of every level from the public and private sector. Our volunteers are a vital part of what makes the Library one of the most special and popular places to visit in Washington, D.C. Many of our volunteers stay for 5, 10, 15, or even 20 years, which helps to make our volunteer program so successful.
What is your favorite item from the Library’s online collections?
The William Oland Bourne’s Left-Handed Penmanship Contests, 1865-1867! Bourne, editor of The Soldiers’ Friend newspaper, recognized that men who lost the use of their right hands through amputation or disability during the war faced challenges learning to use their left hands in their postwar lives. His paper sponsored two left-handed penmanship contests, offering cash prizes, for previously right-handed Union veterans. Submissions typically record the soldier’s own story, but sometimes also include poetry or patriotic sentiments, and occasionally a photograph. First shown in the exhibition “The Civil War in America,” the collection is now online.
A newspaper from Vicksburg, Mississippi that was printed on wallpaper on July 2, 1863, piqued my interest to know more.
Vickburg, Mississippi, like many of the other southern cities, suffered acutely from the ravages of the Civil War. Under siege from May 22 until July 4, 1863, the city faced a daily barrage of gunfire from Union forces under U.S. Grant. Utilizing whatever resources were at hand, the Vicksburg Daily Citizen printed this issue on the back of wallpaper. On July 2 the paper defiantly printed, “The Yankee Generalissimo surnamed Grant has expressed his intention of dining in Vicksburg on the Fourth of July. . . . Ulysses must get into the city before he dines in it.” Vicksburg surrendered two days later.
This is a perfect example of why primary sources are so important: People were living in dire conditions, but still felt it necessary to get the news out to the town. We have copies of this newspaper in its various editions over several days so we know what happened there. With so many “born digital” items now, what sources will survive for future generations to study?
Tell us about a memorable interaction with a Library visitor.
Every day I meet many people who has that look of “wonder and excitement” as they enter the Jefferson Building. There is a real sense of pride that this incredible building was built in America as a reflection how far our country had come by the end of the nineteenth-century. The building was the first public building to be built with electricity in place, including the elevators, which were all run on alternating current or AC, which was much more efficient than direct current. The Jefferson Building is not only a time capsule, but it is what also marks the time in history when America is taking a major role on the world stage.
What’s one thing you’d like to tell teachers about the Library?
I spend a lot of time telling people how they can extend their experiences once they return home. The two places I tell everyone to go are loc.gov/exhibits and loc.gov/teachers, which both do a wonderful job of getting primary sources into the hands of knowledge seekers. The research and collections have been expertly pulled together for you on these sites, so all that is left for you to do is decide how deep your journey is going to go. I consider everyone who enters the Library or goes online a “wader” into the ocean of knowledge that is the Library of Congress, and our goal is to turn people into “swimmers,” and then into “deep divers,” where no one will ever find the limit of knowledge.