A Research Trip to the Library of Congress: Keith Muchowski

The Library of Congress is what its name implies.
The Library of Congress is what its name implies.

Over spring break I traveled from New York City to Washington, D.C. to do research at the Library of Congress for a book I am writing about Theodore Roosevelt Sr., father of the twenty-sixth president. This was my second visit to the LOC this year. Such a trip is a little easier because my spouse is working in the Greater DC area and we have an apartment just outside the city.

The entrance to the James Madison Memorial Building, home of the Library's Manuscript Division.
The entrance to the James Madison Memorial Building, home of the Library’s Manuscript Division.

Getting off the bus at Union Station I hopped on the Metro, eager to reach our home away from home, put my bags down, and see the Mrs. The first thing I noticed was how crowded the subway was. The reason, I read in the next day’s Washington Post, was that the cherry blossoms were in peak bloom. Add in the balmy 80 degree weather—a good 15-20 degrees above average—and it made for a busy weekend. Ridership, the Post reported, was 83% above normal Sunday activity. It was crowded but invariably everyone was in a good mood and enjoying the glorious spring weather.

The following day I was up and out early and on the Orange Line for Capitol South. It was much less stressful this time. On that first trip in January I had to find the Madison Building, fill out the requisite paperwork, sit for a photo i.d., learn the ins-an-outs of signing in at Manuscript Division, and do the little things like purchasing a copy card. To say it was stressful would be an understatement. This time I whisked in like a seasoned pro. A week sounds like a long time, but it is not. I was eager to get to work.

My work area at the Library of Congress.
My work area at the Library of Congress.

Theodore Roosevelt was integral to the growth of the Library of Congress. It was his Executive order of 9 March 1903 that transferred the papers of many of the Founding Fathers—including those of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Ben Franklin—from the State Department to the National Library. The majestic Jefferson Building opened less than five years prior to Roosevelt’s presidency, having moved across the street from the Capitol in 1897. A writer and historian in his own right, Roosevelt was eager to help the Library become a modern institution for the twentieth century. He also had a good relationship with Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam, who graduated from Harvard a few years after Roosevelt and ran the Library for four decades until his retirement in 1939.

Indexes of Chester Arthur's papers (left) and Theodore Roosevelt's.
Indexes of Chester Arthur’s papers (left) and Theodore Roosevelt’s.

It is easier to research presidential papers than other documents because they are indexed more extensively than most other materials. This is fortunate because even in the best of circumstances searching archival records is a laborious and time consuming task. Roosevelt’s papers at the Library of Congress are contained on no less than 485 rolls of microfilm. Compare that to Chester Arthur’s microfilmed paper trail, which is only ten reels. The marked disparity is because of Roosevelt’s extraordinary productiveness and Arthur’s destruction of most of his papers just before he died.

All told, I had a fun and productive week in the Manuscript Division. Right now I am in the process of organizing the reams of material I photocopied. If all goes well I will return again in early summer.


About the Author: Keith Muchowski is chair of the ACRL/NY Special Collections and Archives Discussion Group. He is a librarian at New York City College of Technology (CUNY) and volunteer at Governors Island National Monument and Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site. He blogs at thestrawfoot.com

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