This post is written by Megan Harris of the Library of Congress.
Describe what you do at the Library of Congress and the materials you work with as part of your day to day activities.
As the Senior Reference Specialist for the Veterans History Project (VHP), I work to make our collections accessible to on-site users as well as those who visit us in the American Folklife Center reading room. This might include talking to researchers about their projects and conducting queries of our database, fielding questions about using collections in publication and exhibition, writing blog posts, curating in-person and online displays, and coordinating interpretive projects such as VHP’s inaugural Story Map.
As a historian, I find it incredibly rewarding to be able to work with such unique and compelling primary sources on a daily basis. These include everything from oral histories to love letters, hand-written memoirs, photographs of service buddies, pocket diaries, pen-and-ink sketches and more, all submitted to VHP by the general public. Perhaps even more satisfying is the fact that I get to share our collections with patrons and the public, and help our users mine all of the many jewels in VHP’s archive.
Do you have a favorite item from the Library’s online collections?
I have so many favorites! I could talk all day about the memorable items and collections that I’ve encountered during my tenure with VHP.
How about a favorite type of item? I’m drawn to the original diaries in VHP’s collection. I’m fascinated by the human desire to set down one’s thoughts and experiences on paper, and the lengths that veterans went to in order to keep diaries even during the worst of circumstances (and against military regulations). Take, for example, Leon Jenkins, a Marine who made diary entries in “his trusty pad” during his time in the Pacific Theater during World War II. He even took notes during combat: This page captures the moments just before he was wounded by incoming fire. You can see his handwriting scrawl off the page as he put down the pencil in order to man his gun. The next entry is dated nearly two weeks later, and written in a shaky hand, as Jenkins made entries from his hospital bed. Jenkins’ nephew, who donated the diary to us, indicated that his uncle suffered from undiagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for the rest of his life, and Jenkins’ diary records the source of this postwar agony.
Share a time when an item from the Library’s collections sparked your curiosity.
In my former role as a processing technician for VHP, I would often come across commemorative menus from holiday meals and other special occasions, and wondered about the foods listed on these menus. Some were familiar (such as turkey and stuffing), while others sounded strange and unappetizing (mayonnaise salad?!). The opportunity to write a blog post for Folklife Today, the shared blog between VHP and the American Folklife Center, offered me the chance to explore some of these menus in-depth, and to investigate the role of food in the military in general. The subsequent blog posts that I’ve written on veterans’ memories of particular food items—such as canned peaches and milk—have been some of the most interesting and fun posts to research and produce.
Tell us about a memorable interaction with a patron, K-12 teacher, or student.
In my reference work, I’m continuously amazed by the power of coincidence, and also the expansive reach of VHP’s collection. I remember a patron who just happened to stop by the American Folklife Center reading room during a visit to the Library on his family vacation. When we searched VHP’s online database, we found a digitized oral history interview that had been conducted with this patron’s brother, who had passed away several years earlier. The patron didn’t know his brother had been interviewed, and was moved to tears upon hearing his brother’s voice come out of the computer speakers in the reading room.
While this was an exceptional case, with so many collections in our archive, patrons are bound to find connections. Another very memorable coincidence involved the collections of George Pearcy and Robert Augur—POWs who were held together in the Philippines during World War II, and by a stroke of luck and a well-timed blog post, both found their way to the Veterans History Project. By this same token, you never know what or who you might find in the Library’s collections as a whole. I once talked to a patron whose grandmother was pictured in this Office of War Information photograph!
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?
Reference librarians are here to help you! We love fielding questions that allow us to dive into the collections and to assist patrons in hunting down the absolute perfect resource or answer to a question. Often, we are the best and fastest way to determine how to tackle a project. In the case of VHP collections, we have a wealth of collection information that is not available via our online database, so if you’re having trouble finding what you’re looking for, or are overwhelmed with how to search over 110,000 individual collections, please don’t hesitate to get in touch at [email protected]. The Library of Congress is your Library, and my job is to help you use it.
We also want to include the story of the veteran in your life in the Veterans History Project. We are always looking for submissions of oral histories and original materials such as letters, diaries, memoirs, photographs, military papers, and artwork. To learn more about submitting material to the Veterans History Project, please see our website: www.loc.gov/vets.