It was chilly that June afternoon in the Library of Congress as I waited in line to speak to an archivist, and tried to surreptitiously unpeel the t-shirt off my clammy back. (One of the beauties of living in the D.C. metro area is having world-class research libraries literally a bike ride away along the National Mall. I make the ride often; on that June day, it was seven miles — 45 minutes on a bike. If I drove my car, it would have taken two hours with traffic.) Otherwise, I would have looked more professional if I drove in, when I presented my researcher’s card to the receptionist. But I hate driving in D.C. traffic. I’m not the only one — ask anyone who lives here.
The woman at the reception desk peered at me questioningly over her glasses, checking my physical presentation against the professorial photo on my university researcher’s card — I know I was a mess as I quickly wiped my forehead on my t-shirt sleeve and simultaneously snuck a whiff of my armpits — at least I didn’t smell bad. She frowned at me, then continued to check my credentials.
I shuffled the papers and my laptop awkwardly as I waited. No one is allowed to carry anything larger than a steno pad or a fanny pack to work in the Library of Congress reading rooms; all other items must be checked in the LOC coatroom — although personal computers are allowed. One must surrender everything else, even pens and pencils.
Never fear — the LOC provides everything you need to work but the staff makes sure what you read there stays there — they do check your belongings thoroughly when you exit.
“Hot day today,” she said to me, handing my card back. I nodded. The receptionist pointed to a husky man at a standing desk with a computer in the hall behind her. “Fred* will help you,” she said. “And if you need the ladies’ room, to wipe off before you handle anything, it’s down the hall,” she said.
The archivists in the LOC are the ultimate history detectives for researchers — they streamline search requests so one isn’t flailing about in futility, chasing down things that can sidetrack your progress.
I told Fred about my research project; he nodded. “Sure. A biographical and historical story of an obscure congressman from Florida,” he said, as he turned to his computer.
“This makes sense to you, then,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Why do you ask?”
I told Fred that, truthfully, this was the first time I stated the purpose of my research, and what I hoped to find to another individual out loud.
“I came across this guy totally by accident; I didn’t go looking for him, and it has piqued my interest.”
“You like mysteries, huh?” He said, with a smile.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Well, you’re in the right place,” he said, scrolling through a list of databases. “There’s obvious sources that you’ve probably seen already, such as contemporary newspapers that reported on his comings and goings, but the congressman sounds obscure. There’s plenty of other places to look.”
Fred typed in Emmett’s name, and did a broad search across the databases in the LOC. “We’ll find something on him, for sure, but just so you know, the Library of Congress, contrary to public belief, does not have everything under the sun. We may not have everything you need.”
I peered over Fred’s shoulder as he scrolled through the search information about Emmett — a list of about 20 items — two speeches in congress, committee participation, a few other items about the bills he voted on.
“How long did Emmett serve in congress?” Fred asked.
“Two terms — 1913 to 1917.”
“Hm,” Fred said, opening up the different pages in the list. “Well, he wasn’t popular.”
“What do you mean?”
“He didn’t author many bills, he didn’t get very much passed on behalf of his constituents; and — ” — he said, pulling up his voting record, and pointing to the screen ” — he had a less than 50 percent voting record. Not much about him in the national media, either,” Fred said, thoughtfully, as he looked through the pages.
“Hmm,” I said. “That’s interesting. I mean, he was portrayed as the golden boy of Florida politics when he ran in 1912; he was popular according to the Pensacola media….”
“But then he disappeared,” Fred said, as I nodded. “Well, it might have been as simple as he got tired of Washington, didn’t like being in Congress, then he quit. Which happens,” he said.
“Or maybe not,” I added. “That’s what I want to find out. I need to find out what he did in Washington, and what happened that second term.”
Because Emmett was a Member of Congress, Fred suggested I check holdings in both the National Archives and the House of Representatives archives. “Your best bet is to go in person. But know that both have their own accession protocol, so you’ll need their researcher’s cards. We don’t share archives privileges. They do their own thing,” Fred added, as he handed me a pencil and watched as I scribbled his suggestions furiously onto a piece of paper. “See what you can find here first, though. And if you see a reference for an article in a newspaper we don’t have, we can order copies from different libraries via interlibrary loan.”
I hopped over to the Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room and started with digital newspapers. Score! I found some articles about Emmett that I hadn’t seen before. Finding new items fueled my excitement — other new-to-me information probably was out there, somewhere, but it looked like much of what I was going to find was on unindexed microfilm. I’d probably have to look at each image on a reel to find anything — thousands of images, probably.
I realized finding anything about Emmett was going to be like looking for a needle in the haystack. If I was really going to do this, it meant I would have to do a lot of reaching out to complete strangers who may or may not want to talk to me; family members or ancestors who might not want this story told, who might not have wanted his story told.
I’d have to check out pretty much every source, every random item, even do side searches into family members or friends, who might not have wanted Emmett unearthed once he was dead and buried.
I remember pushing back from the desk in the reading room and closed my eyes. I asked myself:
Is this futile? What if no one wants to help me?
Once I ‘rescue’ Emmett from his obscurity, what is it that I want people to know about him? What is the point of his story anyway?
The only way I was going to find the answers was to commit myself to reading miles to film, to reach out to total strangers with perhaps uncomfortable questions. I couldn’t do a half-ass job on it, either; else the unsolved mystery would haunt me for the rest of my life.
What would I do?
And I swear to you, for the second time, I heard the words, “Tell my story.”
I remember opening my eyes and looking around the reading room — I was the only one in there now, and it was almost 5 pm — time to leave.
As I walked out of the reading room, Fred nodded to me. “See you soon,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll be back.”
*Fred is a pseudonym. The gentleman, a long-time employee of the Library of Congress, asked that I not use his real name.