Life often gets in the way of our best intentions. I was doing so well on my goal of writing once a week on this blog and then work sent me off to Washington DC for three weeks and all of the sudden, I didn’t have a lot of extra time to write anymore. It’s funny; I forget what it’s like to live in a place where I might have friends or family to do things with after work or live in a place where there are places that don’t close at 5PM as I leave the library. Most of the time I don’t miss it – the places to go part anyway. I do miss the people I could meet up with for brunch or have a friend to go to the movies with after work.
I always love going to DC because it is, in a way, like going home. I interned at the Smithsonian Institute as a grad student and my cousins thankfully let me crash at their house for the summer in the Capitol Hill district. If I am ever lucky enough to live in DC again, I’d love to be back in that neighborhood – its old brick houses, parks and scattered businesses seem like they shouldn’t be within walking distance of some of the most powerful places in the United States. One of my favorites things to do after work during that summer was walk back to the house, through the Mall, up the Hill, past the Capitol building and the Library of Congress and back into the residential streets of the Hill. There was a little café I could stop at or a bookstore that looked more like a crammed house of books than a place of business.
I am a museumgoer by nature so DC is a bit of a Mecca for me. I love picking up tidbits and facts and storing them away like a squirrel for winter. Museums, especially the Smithsonian cohort, seem to thrive on the miscellaneous. Why on earth did anyone ever save the paint box one of the Roosevelt kids used while living in the White House? But they did and now it’s proudly on display at the American History Museum. It is times like that in that I think the America’s Attic nickname for the Smithsonian is entirely accurate.
But the museum I could happily live in, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler style, is the National Gallery. You can keep the modern side of things – the modern school and me will never get along – but let me dwell in the French Impressionist rooms or the Dutch rooms and I will be one happy woman. I have cheerfully sat and stared at Van Goghs and Mary Cassetts for hours at the National Gallery. Rushed after work to have only 15 minutes before the museum closed to gaze lovingly at Monet’s Japanese Bridge, a bridge I’ve stood on myself way back in high school. These paintings are old friends and ones I sadly did not get to spend a lot of time with this last trip. I need to put aside a day for the National Gallery in the future to get reacquainted.
Of course, I was there for work and that meant spending time at the National Archives and the Library of Congress. Archives II, the behemoth NARA built in College Park, is overwhelming, cold and modern. Its reading room is lovely – huge and glass filled, giving a researcher a look out over a wood. It was easy to daydream in that room though and I found sitting with my back to the window helped my concentration. There was none of the romance of the archives at Archives II but I suppose it is a government repository; there is nothing less romantic than combing through the records of the Commerce Department.
I much preferred my time at Archives I, the downtown showcase building where one can make the pilgrimage to see the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Most of NARA’s military records still call Archives I home and while Theodore Roosevelt’s investigations of navy yards in 1898 might not have been riveting, the old research room with heavy wood paneling and large paned windows made me feel like I had stepped back in time for a moment and the lounging archivists at the desk should be harried looking clerks, pouring over ledgers and wearing frock coats instead of wearing jeans and hooked into their iPods.
Library of Congress’s manuscripts reading room at the Madison building reminded me of my elementary school library. I swear they had the same green carpeting. It was a room that could bustle quietly as microfilm readers scroll and archivists fetch and roll out four boxes for researchers at a time. The noise was never obtrusive; reminded me of comforting study halls in the spring when you were just starting to get the sense that the school year did have an ending. Up in the Prints and Photographs division, that feeling was even stronger as I sat at a larger table that looked transplanted from a public library and dug through photographs of the Roosevelt family on vacation or on safari or flipped through stereographs in filing cabinets, a stones throw away from an old-school card catalog.
Of all the places I researched at in DC, I loved LC the most. The materials here were the sort you pour over, wanting to read more (if you can decipher the writer’s hand well enough). These are the materials you become an archivist for; the handwritten letters and diaries, the ephemera that has no right to have made it from 1906 to 2012 and yet somehow managed it. A digital librarian I may be, and I love what my work can do for people around the world, but to my mind, there will always be something…something more…about holding and interacting with the actual item that the digital realm can never quite hope to replicate. I am a digital brat but a little piece of my heart will always be analog.