This week, Red Room has showcased the Library of Congress. In honor of the occasion, let me offer a true story of one of my research experiences at the Library of Congress. The following piece, "Road to the River: Research and Rescue in the Library of Congress," was published in the national newsletter of Women Writing the West several years ago.
Road to the River: Research and Rescue in the Library of Congress
by Laurel Anne Hill
I stared at the computer screen in the James Madison Memorial Building. The Library of Congress--housing 128 million items on 530 miles of bookshelves--had no information about California’s Stanislaus River. Well, that’s what the monitor indicated. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had constructed a dam on the Stanislaus twenty-five years ago. What had happened to their feasibility report? Had someone stashed it in a government warehouse--the one from “Raiders of the Lost Ark?”
“I must have messed up,” I whispered to David. In the hushed Current Periodical Reading Room, my voice seemed louder than the roar of mountain waterfalls.
“Try again,” my husband replied.
I searched using different parameters. Still no luck. At least information on file about the Stanislaus--if I found any--would be valid. LOC was the research arm of Congress, not like Yahoo or Google.
This was my first Library of Congress sojourn in over five years. My last foray had been arduous but worthwhile, complete with preliminary research as recommended. Would this trip, short and spontaneous, bear fruit or yield a harvest of frustration?
The 2004 Women Writing the West Conference had inspired me to come to terms with certain aspects of my past through writing. I now planned a personal essay set in California’s Stanislaus River country in 1970. This work would compare my failed first marriage to eroded river access roads and the turbulence of rapids.
But construction of the New Melones Dam had mutilated the wild Stanislaus I had known. Passing years had dimmed my memories of whitewater thrills and dangers. I had to find a way to describe what I could no longer see or remember.
I performed another computer search. Several pictures appeared available in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room. Maybe I was getting the hang of this, after all. Yet the photos were of Knight’s Ferry, downstream from my location of interest. I glanced around the reading room, crammed with books and files. What if some older items had not yet been listed in the LOC database? I would seek assistance.
“Check the rivers section of the card catalogs,” a middle-aged librarian advised, her eyes sparkling with enthusiasm. “You’ll have to read every card or you could miss something useful. Their order isn’t always logical.”
Six years ago, I had visited New York City’s Metropolitan Library to research steam locomotive operation for my novel. Tomes of photocopied catalog cards had provided a bridge to the past. Review of those volumes had taken hours. This week, David and I were visiting family nearby in Virginia. At best, I had a half-day to accomplish my current task.
I thumbed through drawers of typed index cards. They smelled old, invoking childhood memories of my neighborhood library. I checked my watch. My progress was like a turtle’s in low gear. And this card catalog revealed nothing I sought.
David and I took the elevator to the Prints and Photographs Reading Room, where I had hit the jackpot on my previous visit. Then, I had discovered nineteenth-century photographs of exploration down the Colorado River. Pictures I had not found elsewhere, but had needed to write a chapter in my novel.
I entered the reading room. Only LOC pencils and paper were allowed. I fumbled for change to use a locker. A librarian loaned me a quarter. How kind. I stashed my belongings, then handed in a photo request form.
The desired file arrived. I put on a pair of examination gloves and viewed the photos. No rapids or wilderness. Only a lazy Stanislaus curling by homes and farmland. What the computer had shown was what I had received. Yet, when touching these historic pictures, my own past flowed into memory like some ancient river carving canyons.
“Did the photos help at all?” a librarian said.
“Yes,” I said. “Next, I need to find a report by the Army Corps of Engineers.”
“You could check the Science Reading Room in the Adams Building,” she said. “But you really ought to go to the Corps of Engineers facility at College Park. I’d give you their phone number, but they never answer when I call.” She wrote an email address on a slip of paper and wished me good luck.
College Park--there wouldn’t be time for such a side trip. Still, the John Adams Building was worth a try. We would need to navigate the underground tunnel system to get there. David consulted a brochure.
I hit the Science Reading room and cornered a young librarian hunkered behind his computer screen. He wore glasses--certainly they projected professional expertise. I explained my project and time limitations.
“I’ve already tried subject searches,” I said.
“You won’t find your document by subject,” he said. “You need the number associated with the Corps of Engineers report.”
His fingers tapped the keyboard, like those of a pianist playing an erratic tune. His printer spit out sheet after sheet of references.
“We don’t have most of these here,” he said. “When you get back to California, go to your local library and request an interlibrary loan from the Corps of Engineers. And you might check museums near the Stanislaus.” He smiled. “By the way, have you tried searching the web?”
“You mean, Googling it?” David said.
The librarian nodded.
The material I had Googled had been too recent to be relevant. I needed to hold old original photographs to connect with history. To inhale the aroma of typeset-printed documents or finger the brittle edges of precomputer-age reports. How would I separate fact from fiction on the web?
I slipped the results of his WorldCat Advanced Search into my bag and thanked him. His assistance--everyone’s--really had been helpful. The road to information, like the river, had certainly changed.
Causes Laurel Hill Supports
Winter Nights Shelter and Shelter, Inc.