Five Questions with Ryan Reft, Historian, Manuscript Division

This post is by Ryan Reft of the Library of Congress.

Ryan Reft

Describe what you do at the Library of Congress.

One of the great things about my job is that the work changes on a daily basis. At the risk of over-simplifying: I oversee Manuscript Division collections that relate to domestic policy, which includes congressional papers, certain cabinet officials, non-government organizations, journalists, Supreme Court Justices and Federal Court Judges, and our LGBTQ collections. One day I might curate a temporary exhibit for a Congressional event; on another day, I might speak with members of the media regarding our collections; other times, I review potential collections for acquisition. I was also fortunate enough to work with Cheryl Regan and Sahr Conway-Lanz in curating the Library’s current exhibit on World War I: Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War One. Finally, I frequently help researchers navigate and explore our holdings, which can be a lot of fun. I not only get to learn about new history being made or discovered, but also contribute to it by aiding historians and others in their pursuit of new revealing narratives about our nation’s past.

Charles Hamilton Houston. Bullet, dog tags, and coat buttons, ca.1917. William L. Houston Papers, Manuscript Division

What is your favorite item from the Library’s online collections?

I’m going to steal a page from my counterpart, Sahr Conway-Lanz, who noted in his question and answer a year ago that it is the connection between collections and the larger whole that fascinates me. I write about our collections in both scholarly and popular venues. Rarely does a single item serve as a key to some historical mystery, but rather, a collection of documents taken together as a sort of contextual whole can.

That said, however, the dog tags and coat buttons of civil rights pioneer Charles Hamilton Houston on display in Echoes of the Great War encapsulate the kind of influence the war cast on its participants. Houston had earned these dog tags and coat buttons by graduating from the first Officer’s Training Camp for African Americans organized during the war. Though segregated, the camp and his service overseas would be eye opening experiences for Houston, who would return from World War I determined to battle racism and segregation in American life and did so as Dean of Howard Law School. From that position he trained Thurgood Marshall and others, while also serving as the NAACP’s most prominent lawyer for much of the 1930s and early 1940s. We discovered them in the papers of his father, William LePre Houston, which the Manuscript Division houses; we had no idea Hamilton’s dog tags were there, so it was a great surprise.

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

I went to the University of California San Diego for my PhD in Urban History. Being in California shifted some of my focus toward Western History and the New Right of the 1970s and 1980s, a conservative political movement that had its roots in Southern California. When we acquired the David Broder papers, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist from the Washington Star, New York Times, and Washington Post, I was thrilled to discover his coverage of the 1966 Gubernatorial race. That campaign brought Ronald Reagan to national prominence and gave the New Right movement a real boost. Broder’s notes, interviews, and accounts of Reagan’s speeches and rallies during he campaign really provided new insight into what one could argue was the most salient political movement of the late 20th century.

Tell us about a memorable interaction with a Library user.

Honestly, I cannot think of one particular moment but I can say that whenever I am able to help a researcher discover a collection that carries their scholarship further, you feel a certain sense of accomplishment. As someone who might have been described as being a “hipster” in my younger days, finding that key document or documents that turn an argument for the better is as great as finding that obscure, ironic t-shirt from 1984 in a forgotten thrift store pile of clothes.

What’s one thing you’d like to tell teachers about the Library?

The Library is so much more than you think it is. Until I worked here, I never realized what a resource it is for so many avenues of research: cartography, photography, prints, rare books, manuscripts, film, broadcasting, and a great deal more. There really is something for everybody here.


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