- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 19, 2002

The last time District resident Kathy Valerin went to the Library of Congress, she was home for Christmas break working on a research paper after a junior-year semester spent studying in Denmark.

"It was a study of ethnic minorities in Denmark," Miss Valerin, now a Dartmouth College senior, remembers. "I needed books that I had been using in Denmark, and I was hoping to get translations of some that I hadn't been able to read because I don't read Danish."
Not the sort of thing you'd find at your local public library. So Miss Valerin headed for the halls of the redoubtable Library of Congress, perhaps the one place in town that's even more daunting than the Southeast/Southwest freeway or the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Have a knotty problem you'd like to unravel? Need to consult a Colonial-era newspaper? Always wondered when the practice of sending telegrams to servicemen's next-of-kin got started? The Library of Congress may have an answer for you if you know what you're doing.
"I was so scared of the place I just didn't think I could navigate it all by myself," says Miss Valerin, who got her father, Guillermo Valerin, an immigrant from Costa Rica who works as an assistant buildings and grounds manager at a local private high school, to go along for moral support.
Founded in 1800 to serve the reference needs of members of Congress, today's library has plenty of material to entice the lifelong learner or sidewalk scholar. With new material coming in daily, the Library has more than 121 million items on 530 miles of bookshelves. Half of its book holdings are in languages other than English.
"This is the nation's library," says Diana Nestor Kresh, director of the Library's Public Service Collections. "We are very interested in attracting the average person."
Books are just the beginning. The library houses the world's largest collection of legal material, as well as films, maps, sheet music, and recorded sound. There are newspapers, some dating to Colonial times, motion pictures from the dawn of the film age and tens of thousands of photographs. In addition, this state-of-the-art research library is home to such historical treasures as the Gutenberg Bible, Thomas Jefferson's rough draft of the Declaration of Independence and the personal papers of Frederick Douglass.
After some searching, Miss Valerin found the books she wanted, along with others she didn't know she needed, thanks to the help from some assiduous reference librarians in the European Reading Room.
"It turned out to be really cool," Miss Valerin says. It wasn't just that everyone was so helpful; it was that they were so excited about what I was doing. They even got me excited."

So how does a researcher get started? At the Library of Congress, whether you are a confirmed academic, a college student, or just someone with a curiosity, everyone starts in the same place reader registration. You are asked to show a photo ID and then issued a card.
"You have to get a reader's card before you do anything," Miss Valerin explains. "My father got one, too."
Of course, it helps if you've done your homework before coming in. These days, browsing the Library's Web site (www.loc.gov) and doing a little online research about your topic is essential. Once you have made your way past the guards at the gate, expect to spend a fair amount of time here; the wheels of research can grind slowly.
The Library of Congress, as Mrs. Kresh is quick to point out, is not designed to help 10-year-olds with their homework. Even high school students are encouraged to try their research elsewhere, at a public library that may have the particular book or microfilmed newspaper they've been looking for.
But serious researchers, librarians agree, are welcome.
"The library all along has received the sidewalk scholar," says Carol Armbruster, a reference librarian and French specialist at the Library's European Reading Room, one of the specialized international collections at the Library. "It was never exclusively academic."
So who goes to the Library of Congress?
Over the years the library has played host to any number of characters, such as the homeless man who parlayed his love of Shakespeare into a book deal and a paying job, mystery writers researching historical context and actors who have taken on a historical character. That's in addition to the graduate students, university professors and other scholars who make up the Library's research community.
Just don't expect to go it alone. Novices will need a reference librarian or two to help them navigate the ins and outs of the library's catalogs and databases. They are the ones who can help researchers focus a topic, point them to some unexpected sources and translate their requests into language that the library's complex cataloging system can understand.
"Most people have a vision of a researcher as solitary, but actually we are in desperate need of support and community," says Jane Blevins, a doctoral student from the University of Chicago who has been working in the Main Reading Room since January. "Researchers are dependent on the kind of active research that the librarians can do for you."
Mrs. Blevins' topic, concerning the influence of Anglo-American and Victorian culture on French author and poet Paul Valery, took her far beyond the online catalog. Working with reference librarian Thomas Mann, a 22-year veteran of the library catalog who once worked as a private investigator, she combed through indexes, bibliographies and databases. And thanks to Mr. Mann, she even found a bibliography that became the basis for a chapter in her dissertation.
"It was a much-needed shot of adrenalin in my work," says Mrs. Blevins, who spent the past three years researching her topic at France's National Library. "Nowhere else are the librarians as helpful as they are here."
Of course, sometimes the things that turn up at the library can be exactly the opposite of what an investigator was expecting to find.
That was the case for Ruth Price. For the past 13 years, Miss Price has been working on a biography of Agnes Smedley (1892-1950), an activist and social reformer who had been accused, among other things, of being a Soviet spy.
"My purpose was to vindicate her," says Miss Price from her study desk at the Library. (Study desks are available to scholars with book contracts.) "I was sure she had been wrongly accused."
To ferret out the truth, Miss Price investigated just about every corner of the library, along with the Main Reading Room, using collections from all three of its buildings. She pulled newspapers from San Francisco detailing the Hindu-German conspiracy, in which Indian nationalists were accused of conspiring with Germany to overthrow the British Raj during World War I. Smedley was involved in the Indian nationalist movement of the time. In the map room, she used the Library's array of Sanborn fire-insurance maps from 1904, which show both streets and dwellings. In her autobiography, Smedley recalled living in particular neighborhoods. Miss Price also checked with American Indian specialists at the Library to investigate Smedley's assertion that she had received an Indian name from an elderly relative.
"We looked at the name she said she was given, and then we checked the cognates," Miss Price says. "There were no cognates that matched the name in any Native American language we could find."
In the Rare Book Room, Miss Price found anarchist pamphlets and an article about Smedley written by Upton Sinclair. She pored through city directories in the local history and genealogy section of the library to plot Smedley's moves through a series of rundown neighborhoods. She found recently declassified documents from various intelligence sources in the European and Asian reading rooms. And later she made use of the Prints and Photographs Division to find portraits of Smedley's circle of friends.
"All of the librarians were so helpful," she says. "The subject-specialty people were as much a resource for me as the books."
But when she put it together with evidence she had picked up from the National Archives and other sources, she found that Smedley had been what FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover said she was all along an unabashed and unrepentant spy for the Soviets.
"All of a sudden everything said the last thing I wanted to prove," she says. "I got to do what her worst enemies had failed to do."
Like Miss Blevins, Miss Price credits Mr. Mann, whom she calls the "patron saint of researchers," with helping give extraordinary depth to her research.
"If Thomas Mann weren't here, this wouldn't be the same book," she says "To say that someone is a passionate librarian is usually an oxymoron. But he is intellectually on fire about information."

Can't get to the Library? You can participate in the Library's "Ask a Librarian" service. Each day, Library of Congress reference librarians field a few thousand requests on a wide range of topics. Those submitting a query do have to fill out some basic information about themselves, which tend to discourage the less-than-serious applicant. Spearheaded by Mrs. Kresh, the effort is designed to make the Library's collections and expertise available to a wide array of people.
"Why ask Jeeves when you can ask a librarian?" Mrs. Kersh says, alluding to the Web site that offers answers to any question.
"Ask a Librarian" topics have ranged from how to get rid of "book lice" to finding aviator Charles Lindbergh's itinerary after his return from Paris. In July, the Library added an online chat from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. that allows members of the public to "go live" with librarians from divisions across the Library.
Meanwhile, the Library continues to add content to its Web sites. Its American Memory project, https://memory.loc.gov, contains thousands of images and primary sources to tantalize the researcher. And for families, https://americaslibrary.gov offers interactive activities for children and parents.
Of course, as significant as the digitized items are, there is no substitute for the real thing. Sitting in front of a computer is not the same as sitting in the library surrounded by the splendor of the Main Reading Room.
"The physical presence is very important," Mrs. Blevins says. "You look around, and you can see the majesty of the library's mission."
And all it takes is a reader's card. Just before she left for Dartmouth, Miss Valerin put hers in a safe place. But her father, who spent his time in the Library in the Latin American Reading Room, carries his in his wallet.
"He's so proud," Miss Valerin says. "Some days he just takes it out and looks at it."

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