Five Questions with Arlene Balkansky, Reference Specialist, Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room

This post is written by Arlene Balkansky of the Library of Congress.

Arlene Balkansky

Describe what you do at the Library of Congress and the materials you work with as part of your day to day activities.

I answer a wide range of questions related to newspapers, periodicals, government documents, and comic books. These questions may be asked in-person in our reading room, or by phone, email, and via Ask a Librarian and Chat services. I provide answers and research guidance utilizing our collections of original materials, microforms, and databases, with coverage ranging from the 17th century to the present. I also give orientations to our reading room, participate in planning exhibits and programs, identify online and printed resources to add to the collections, and write topics pages for our Chronicling America website and posts for our Headlines and Heroes blog.

I love working with the full range of people visiting our reading room, whether on-site or remotely: the teenager working on a National History Day project, the family interested in comic books, the university student, the teacher participating in the Library’s Summer Teacher Institute, the genealogist, the professor, the filmmaker, the author, and more. I have been privileged to work with individuals from all over the United States and around the world.

The New York Times, February 23, 1919. Rotogravure Picture Section 5, page 1

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

I have many favorites, but I’ll go with a newspaper page focused on the Harlem Hell Fighters, an African-American regiment that marched triumphantly up New York’s Fifth Avenue to Harlem in a massive parade in their honor on February 17, 1919. This New York Times picture section front page from February 23, 1919, is one of over 6,000 digitized pages available in our online collection: Newspaper Pictorials: World War I Rotogravures, 1914 to 1919. The rotogravure process allowed for the printing of high quality photographs on inexpensive newsprint, hence the stunning photo of helmeted troops in formation with spectators ten deep lining the street.

I also appreciate the mix of photos on a single page, including one of the Hell Fighters’ famous band, which was organized and led by James Reese Europe and introduced many American and French soldiers and French civilians to jazz during World War I. Women are featured too, both as motor corps drivers and as immigrating British brides of American sailors. Even in triumph, though, you can recognize racism with the realization that the Hell Fighters were commanded by white officers and segregated from American white troops. After the parade, these black veterans returned to pervasive discrimination. Still, the existence and valor of these proud troops helped shape the modern civil rights movement.

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

Instead of a single item, I’ll go with a single set: World War History: Daily Records and Comments as Appeared in American and Foreign Newspapers, 1914-1926. In November 2018, on the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I, the Library completed its digitization of this 400-volume, 79,621-page collection of newspaper clippings. Coverage begins on June 29, 1914, with articles focusing on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and continues into the post-war world through Dec. 31, 1926. The pages are packed with war-related news, editorial cartoons, maps, photos, and more. The foreign language American press is frequently represented, particularly articles in German, and also hundreds in French and Italian. I find it fascinating to search by a keyword, such as draft, or browse chronologically and compare daily press coverage from multiple sources. The mammoth collection was created after the war under the direction of Otto Spengler, a German American immigrant who owned a news clipping business. The 400 original volumes have now been stabilized, rehoused, and stored off-site.

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

Some years ago, a student participating in National History Day contacted us via Ask a Librarian for his project focusing on William Seward and the purchase of Alaska (remember “Seward’s Folly”?). The student wanted a copy of a page from The New York Herald that contained ads mocking Seward. He had the correct citation from his research, but no access near his home to the newspaper. I was able to provide a high-resolution scan of the April 12, 1867, ads using one of our microfilm scanners. I found the humor fascinating and particularly noteworthy from a newspaper that supported the purchase, but still ridiculed Seward. Now you can find these satirical ads digitized in Chronicling America at the bottom of page 6 of the April 12, 1867, issue. Take a look near the bottom of column 5: “Cash! Cash! Cash!—Cash paid for cast off territory…Any impoverished monarchs retiring from the colonization business may find a good purchaser by addressing W.H.S.” You can also find thousands of other New York Herald issues in Chronicling America.


Arlene Balkansky at a Library of Congress open house. Photo by Shawn Miller

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

We want you to explore the millions of items that are digitized on the Library’s website, but to understand that many more millions are not.

Please check out all of our major digitized newspaper collections. We are currently celebrating reaching 15 million newspaper pages in Chronicling America. While the bulk of Chronicling America content is from 1836 to 1922, you can now find digitized newspapers from as early as 1789 (President George Washington’s inauguration) to as late as 1963 (President John F. Kennedy’s assassination). We’re not stopping at 15 million either. You can expect more digitized newspaper pages from Alaska to Texas and many states in-between.

Don’t forget about our more specialized digitized newspaper collections, including William Randolph Hearst’s florid New York Journal, 1896-1899, and the often heart-wrenching Japanese-American Internment Camp Newspapers, 1942- 1946. As referenced above, the Library also has digital newspaper collections focused on the World War I era: Newspaper Pictorials, Stars and Stripes, and World War History Newspaper Clippings.

What about those millions of Library of Congress materials that aren’t digitized?  Within our Serial and Government Publications Division alone, we have 800,000 reels of newspaper microfilm, with many available via interlibrary loan through your local library. We also have bound volumes of newspapers, individual historic newspaper issues, recent newspapers and periodicals, selected U.S. government documents, vast numbers of U.N. documents, and the largest publicly held comic book collection in the world. Look at our Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room webpage and Ask us so you can learn more about how we can help you, whether you can visit us in-person or not.

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