I know the Main Reading Room at the Library of Congress. We’ve been friends since February, when I began to memorize my tour script: Edwin Blashfield collar painting at the top of the dome, state seals in stained glass windows, large marble ladies representing areas of study, bronze statue of Beethoven clutching his ear (guess why). Nic Cage.
I know the Main Reading Room, I should say, when I’m standing on the glassed-in overlook with a tour group, or tiptoeing around the outskirts of the room with a VIP tour group.
What I didn’t know was how to use the space as a researcher, beyond the basic who’s allowed into the Main Reading Room (anyone sixteen or older and in possession of a readers card) and who’s not (Sean Bean).
I realized this last week, when I decided to add regular academic research, study, and writing to my “home-building” efforts.
I should explain this home-building; it’s important. It’s what I should have been doing since I arrived in Washington, D.C. last December. Home-building means that instead of simply living in D.C.– going through the motions of work, relaxation at home, grocery shopping, etc.– I’m creating an enriching life for myself in D.C. I’m making it my home, and establishing my unique hobbies, goals, and friendships within it.
Recently, this home-building has manifested in a few different ways: on the literal side, I’ve been making my bedroom feel homey by purchasing furniture (an actual dresser! A nightstand! O the wonder!), and hanging art. As aforementioned, I’ve also decided that what makes me feel most like myself is having an intellectual task at hand.
I already read constantly, which fires a fair amount of neurons; however, I’ve always liked the challenge of multi-book, Post-It laden, long-term research. I was the child who decided to learn Greek mythology over one summer vacation, German language over another. I haven’t changed much. In fact, I suspect that my ten-year-old self and twenty-three-year-old self are currently holding hands and jumping up and down, shouting “MUMMIESSSS!” with utter delight.
You see, the research I’ve decided upon concerns James Fort (Jamestown) in Virginia, and the conclusions forensic anthropologists are making based on the human remains found there. (Not exactly mummies, but you understand what’s fun to shout
). It’s astounding how much a trained eye can see in a four-hundred-year-old grave. Green stains on bones mean that once a shroud was pinned against the body; the size and shape of a skeleton reveals sex, age, build, along with a lifetime of medical history; and even what scientists call the “context” of the grave contributes to the larger story of both the buried and the gravediggers. I’d like my research to train my own eyes, and to give me a better understanding of what life was like for this– one might say doomed from the start– group of early colonists.
Further, I’m interested in the ethics of opening a grave. Not because I necessarily disapprove of the practice, but because I wonder at which point we cease to be bodies worthy of quiet mourners and flowers against our headstones, and become remains subject to whatever probing and scanning scientists wish to do. How old is old enough to “dig up?” How do scientists show respect to the remains they’re working with (if at all)? What happens to the remains once scientists have concluded their studies, and who decides?
These questions brought me to the Main Reading Room last week, holding only a slim notebook and a pen – tools rendered childish by the likes of iPads and laptops and phones the size of cobblestones. I began at the reference desk in the center of the room, where a reference librarian named Peter* greeted me pleasantly, not suspecting that I would consume the next forty-five minutes of his life.
“Oh, you’re the Jamestown graves girl,” he said after I mentioned I had ordered fifteen books on the subject, which were supposedly waiting for me in Alcove 1.
We talked, Peter and I, about where I could keep my fifteen books when I wasn’t in the Main Reading Room using them. He suggested that I apply for a study shelf. Study shelves, which I wouldn’t have ventured to mention had Peter not brought them up, have always seemed to me a kind of Library of Congress Mecca. Having your own shelf means that you’ve established yourself as a bona fide researcher at the Library, and are so dedicated and important that you’re deserving of owning a little bit of space within the Library’s hundreds of miles of shelves. I suspected that I would have to sell my soul to get a study shelf of my own. Or at the very least, my watch.
Peter led me to Maggie, another reference librarian, and the Keeper of the Study Shelves. She turned down my initial offer– leather band, faux-rose gold rim, only a little bit of gunk on the face from a peanut butter sandwich gone awry– and instead asked me a few questions about my research:
What’s the nature of your project?
Is it a long-term endeavor?
How would a study shelf benefit you?
Are you doing research as part of an organization?
Here I hung my head. “No, I’m not affiliated with a university. I’m just interested in the topic.”
Maggie’s face cleared. “That’s perfectly fine,” she said brightly, “you don’t have to be in school, and research doesn’t have to be your profession. Research for personal reasons is just as important to us.”
Maybe it seems a small thing, but that resonated with me. At the Library of Congress, we often throw around the term “lifelong learners,” as in, the Songs of America digital collections are intended for teachers, students, and lifelong learners alike. Somehow, though, being in the Main Reading Room, feeling desperately interested in my topic and equally afraid that my intentions paled in comparison to others’, made the Library’s value of my non-official goals mean a great deal more than it had before.
So, I got my study shelf. Maggie was kind enough to give me a high one to accommodate my height, and Peter, forehead shining, carried my fifteen books back. They gave me an overview of the process: now I was able to request that books I checked out be placed directly on my shelf. If I urgently needed to look at something, and it was on another person’s shelf, the librarians would coordinate asking the other person if I could borrow their book for a few hours. Essentially, everything was done to ensure that my use of Library materials be efficient and fruitful. All that was asked of me was that I sign in once a week to prove I was coming in regularly.
And then– The Main Reading Room. All of the logistics figured out, and a promise made to name my firstborn after one of the reference librarians, I sat down at a long, semi-circular desk. And looked up. At the larger-than-life marble women, at Beethoven wincing in pain, at Blashfield’s painted figures pinching the seams of the dome together. They all seemed to pull the researchers into their solemnity. I felt I would be better under their gazes.
I studied Jamestown yesterday and I will study it again tomorrow. But then, it was enough to be part of everything.
*Names have been changed.
Note that these are my own views, experiences, and opinions, and in no way reflect or represent those of the Library of Congress.