Yesterday, I ventured inside The Oracle, also known as the National Archives, located at 701 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW.
Hell yeah. It was one of the best days of my life in the world of Emmett Wilson research.
In the 25 years that I’ve lived in the DC area (15 on Capitol Hill), I’ve visited the Archives only about three times. It is a big tourist attraction, and so the exhibit area can be rather crowded this time of year. Locals tend to stay away from the Mall during heavy tourist season where the Mall is overrun with exhaust-belching tour buses; and then, after working all day, you really don’t want to deal with traffic/tour buses/downtown gridlock…
…which is why I rode my bike down to the Mall.
Seriously. It would have taken me an hour and a half to drive the 10 miles from my house to the National Archives, then $25 to park about two or three blocks away in the closest garage. The bike ride took about 40 minutes, mostly downhill, and I parked the bike about 100 feet from the Researcher’s Entrance at the back of the museum. It isn’t a bad ride. I took plenty of photos along the way.
I’d thought about visiting the Archives much earlier in Emmett’s research process, but two things held me back:
- I didn’t really know Emmett that well until about 18 months into the research. My typical approach in research has been to exhaust all known and obvious sources I can obtain on my own for every fact available, then reconstruct the story.
- I wanted to have a list of specific questions that I was unable to answer on my own to take to one of their researchers. I don’t like to waste another researcher’s time with questions that are easily answered doing one’s due diligence.
Waiting until I knew more about Emmett was a good move. I went into the Archive with a list of specific things and questions I wanted to explore. Although I only had time to look partially into one research question on my list while I was there, the experience was incredibly valuable.
Learning the Archive
The first thing I wanted to do was obtain a regular researcher’s card. You don’t have to do it, but if you plan to visit more than once or twice, it is a good idea. Anyone can get a card; you have to view a quick training presentation (which, basically, tells you what you can and can’t do while in the Archive), then present a photo i.d.
Most first-time visitors are directed to a common area, which has computers and assistants who can help you find what you need. You check what’s in the holdings, then go up to the second floor reading room, to fill out the necessary paperwork to view your book, film, or other artifact.
I knew what I wanted to see already, so I was more interested in talking with a professional legislative archivist about my project. The clerk at the information desk made a call for me, and about five minutes later, one of the legislative archivist came downstairs to assist.
Ben the Archivist was a middle-aged, genial lover of history who looked like he lived and breathed legislation all his life. I told him briefly about Emmett and the research, what I was looking for, and that I had no idea how to navigate congressional records from 1913-1917.
“You will after today,” he said, crisply. “I’m going to show you how to navigate this place. You won’t see a lot today of what you came here for originally, but after today, you’ll get better service because you’ll know what to do.”
Ben directed me to a side room off of the second floor reading room, ‘a ghost room’ he called it, because hardly anyone used it. It was floor-to-ceiling original Congressional Record books, directories, and other related resources. He showed me how to locate Emmett in the index, then, he climbed up a ladder to a top shelf, and pulled down volume 52 of the 1914 Congressional Record.
He looked at one of the items I had identified from the index. He opened the book to the page.
There was a dialog between Emmett and another congressman about funding for renovating the post office building in Pensacola! Emmett’s words in dialog, complete with some snarky commentary between Emmett and another congressman, and all of it new to me!
“Oh my God,” I said, awestruck, gaping at the page. “This is exactly what I’m looking for.”
I had to restrain myself from laughing out loud with joy at what I was finding, or hugging the archivist who was showing me the ropes. After all, I was in the National Archives.
Ben the Archivist appreciated my sense of overwhelm-and-joy, and nodded approvingly. My restraint was rewarded thusly:
“It is more than possible to find legislation in this building that your Emmett probably held in his hands. Follow me.”
You’ll never guess.
OK. I’ll just tell you. But first…
wait for it…
…it was a personal tour into the stacks!
NO ONE goes into the stacks of the National Archives, unless escorted by a senior archivist, and for special projects only. I merited this privilege, I think, because Ben really liked my project. During our walk though maze-like corridors and though back-staircases, the archivist said, more than once, the Emmett Wilson biography had “durability,” and “was an important story to tell about Progressive-Era politics in Florida.”
The Inner Sanctum
Our trip into the stacks was to find the minutes to the Banking and Currency Committee sessions for the 64th Congress. We found book with actual handwritten minutes of the meetings.
I didn’t say much as I walked along the long, chilly, dimly lit aisles of bound leather books that Emmett probably saw, probably touched during his lifetime. Ben muttered mostly to himself, as he looked for the specific committee book, which probably hadn’t been seen or opened in decades. As I walked behind him, I gazed at the rows upon rows of books from Emmett’s time in congress. There were hundreds of books in there, well cared for, just waiting to be read. I, too, touched the spines gently, reverently, as I passed them on the shelves. I was kind-of expecting the Archive cops to descend on me or alarms to go off, but no, nothing happened. It was just quiet in there.
He found the book. He handed it to me, as he filled out the requisite card for reshelving the book when I was finished with it.
“This place is a treasure,” I said, still majorly awestruck. “I am humbled to be in this room.”
Ben just continued to fill out the forms; but again, he smiled and nodded approvingly.
We put the book into a proper archival box, which we had to take back to the main the reading room, where, for the fourth time, I was carded, inspected, and allowed in by the same friendly guard. (FYI: Anytime you go in and out of any door in the Archives, you have to scan your card and submit any papers for inspection, even if it is the same notebook paper the guard handed you five minutes earlier.)
Ben shook hands with me, gave me his card, and the contact name of another legislative colleague who works also at the University of Maryland. I’m meeting the U of Maryland colleague this coming week. He left me with my book; he was off to help another researcher visiting from Catholic University that same morning.
This is the Real Deal
I mentioned earlier that security was really strict at the Archives, and that extends to what you can bring with you into the reading room. You’ll notice I don’t have any inside photos of the reading room, or of the book I was allowed to read.
You can carry a computer into the reading room (after it is inspected), and cell phones are OK, but there is no talking on the phones, and no photos are allowed. Some phones have scanner applications, and the applications have to be approved by the staff before you use them.
No ink pens are allowed, no Post-its; I was not allowed to bring my small notebook into the reading room, either. My short list of questions was OK (only a 5×7 notecard). Still, that card was scrutinized before I left more than once.
All the tight security is for a reason, of course. It’s frustrating, if you are like me and chomping at the bit to get at the information, but, it is worth it because you are given original documents to read. That, my friends, is a privilege.
I sat with that book for about an hour; I was looking for Emmett, primarily, but I spent time also inspecting the book itself. The handwriting done by the old fashioned way with pen-and-ink. I ran my fingers gently across the pages of beautiful copperplate penmanship. Emmett’s name was mentioned in several places; his contributions to the committee were duly (if sparingly) noted.
The whole time I was looking at the book, I was thinking, Emmett saw this book. He saw the secretary writing all of this information down. If only the book could talk….
Even though I didn’t get to see much of the content or data I was after initially, the visit to the National Archives was one of the best experiences I’ve had in Emmett’s book research to-date. I have a whole new source of information to explore, an excellent contact who invited my additional questions whenever necessary, and a whole new respect and admiration for a resource just a bike ride away.