Chapter 7: Library of Congress

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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 main reading room in the Library of Congress. My haunt is usually on the second floor, newspapers and microfilm. Source: Library of Congress

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.

Anyone can get a reader’s card to do research in the Library of Congress. It is renewable every year.

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?

And:

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.

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Temporary Luddite; Technology Blessing

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It has been busy as heck since school let out. Let me tell you. I thought I was ready to have the kiddos home all day (I’m working mostly out of the home office this summer), but even with well thought out activities, it is a lot of stop-and-start.

I have two triumphs to report this week:

Not my daughter, but a group of Amish girls. Source: CBSnews.com

Not my daughter, but a group of Amish girls. Source: CBSnews.com

On Monday, we had to pry the technology from my oldest child’s hands as she went off to camp in Amish country.

No tech is allowed AT ALL at that camp. The wifi access is probably terrible, anyway.

Heck, she’s the one who said she wanted to go to camp at this place with her best friend. When reality hit on Sunday night, as she realized she’d be without her Kindle and other pacifier devices, she looked actually panicked.

Sage (far right) and her friends on a hayride. Yep, she's having fun. Source: BRR

Sage (far right) and her friends on a hayride. Yep, she’s having fun. Source: BRR

“What am I going to do all week?”

I did not want to trot out the old, “When I was a girl back in the ’70s, we did this and such….”

I didn’t. I just assured her there would be stuff to do. So, Monday morning, we drove her to the camp. No news from her, but we were sent some great photos.

She seems to have adjusted to the Luddite life just fine.

 


You remember earlier in the year when I accidentally deleted several hundred .jpg files from The Pensacola Journal? I had saved several hundred image files with information about Emmett Wilson on them, gathered by painstakingly reading old microfilm and going screen-by-screen to cull the data.

I had resigned myself to rerequesting seven years’ worth of film to scan and capture the images.

Well, on Sunday, I did a check back on the Library of Congress‘ database, Chronicling America. Lo and behold, I found that all of the years I had lost are there, scanned in, and in .pdf image format. Hallelujah!

Two things, though:

  • I’m glad I went through page-by-page to locate Emmett’s original information, and document it the first time through, because the search engines are not perfect. There were at least a dozen articles the search engines did not capture for me, even after several tests. You still cannot absolutely rely on search engines to do your research, folks.
  • The film is not complete in one of the years. In the original 1912 batch of film, there was a Carnival Booster section (an extra section to raise money for the 1913 Mardi Gras celebrations) included in the November 25 issue. This extra section (and a few other similar supplements) is not in the LOC film. I’m still going to have to request the individual reel.

Having the film available at any time is a great time saver, because microfilm requests take about three weeks between initial request and the time my library receives it for me to read. I still have read through everything, but this is a tremendous help.

 

 

Voice From the Past

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Two-foot creepy talking doll from 1890. Source: NPR

Two-foot creepy talking doll from 1890. Source: NPR

If you’ve ever listened to historic recordings found at the National Jukebox (the Library of Congress’ recording archive), you know the recorded tunes or speech can be rough, or hard to hear.

Or, as in this example, as featured yesterday on NPR’s All Things Considered, creepy.

Thomas Edison created a set of talking dolls in 1890 — an incredible technological feat for the time. The voices, though, are scary, especially coming from a doll!

According to the article, Edison didn’t really like the two-foot talking dolls either. He said they were ‘unpleasant’. They didn’t sell well, either; the price tag was about $200 in today’s money (the average income was approximately $500 a year in 1890.)


Emmett's family had a graphophone that looked something like this model. Source: Phonojack

Emmett’s family had a graphophone that looked something like this model. Source: Phonojack

The closest thing Emmett and his family got to having one of those talking dolls was a graphophone that the Wilson family had in their house on 6th Street in Chipley, Florida.

I know that Emmett’s family occasionally held ‘graphophone parties” where they’d sit around the parlor and listen (and dance) to music, speeches, or even comedians giving their schpiel, all recorded on a little wax cylinder.

Emmett wasn’t important enough in the political world to have had his speeches recorded. Still, I wonder what his voice sounded like? Hopefully it was not creepy.

He probably had a strong Southern accent, though.

If you are interested in hearing speeches from 100 years ago, visit the National Jukebox, or, the Library of Congress here in D.C.

Civil War Stereographs at the LOC

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For those who have kept up with the activities surrounding the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death, check this out:

“The Library of Congress has acquired 540 rare and historic Civil War stereographs from the Robin G. Stanford Collection. The first 77 images are now online, including 12 stereographs of President Lincoln’s funeral procession through several cities and 65 images by Southern photographers showing South Carolina in 1860-61. ” (Source: LOC)

"Lincoln Lies in State." Stanford Collection. Source: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2015645312/resource/

“Lincoln Lies in State.” Stanford Collection. Source: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2015645312/resource/

 

The collection of scanned images can be found here.

According to a press release, the LOC will post all of the images of the collection, once digitized. The archivists have done a great job scanning in the images. The stereographs are faded and it is hard to see some of the images, but we have images from the past, folks! We have new information about the past! I love it!

Emmett’s father, Dr. Francis C. Wilson, served from 1861-1865 with the 11th Regiment, Alabama Infantry. He wasn’t a physician; he wasn’t even a hospital aide. According to the transcript of a speech Dr. Wilson himself gave about his Civil War experiences, he was a regular soldier.

Transcript of the speech by Dr. Wilson about his Civil War experiences. The speech was transcribed by his wife, Kate Jordan Wilson, Emmett's stepmother. This is Kate Jordan Wilson's handwriting.

Transcript of the speech by Dr. Wilson about his Civil War experiences. The speech was transcribed by his wife, Kate Jordan Wilson, Emmett’s stepmother. This is Kate Jordan Wilson’s handwriting.

 

It is possible that there may be an image within the stereograph collection that includes Dr. Wilson as a young Confederate soldier. Yeah, the odds are slim, but then, the odds were pretty unlikely that I’d have discovered so much information about Emmett Wilson at this point.

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If you have a chance to visit the Library of Congress here in D.C., it is worth at least a day or two of your time. In addition to the exhibits, the archivists and historians are wonderful people, and they actually enjoy talking about their work behind the scenes.

And if you do, you might find me sitting in a carrel with a microfilm reader or a big dusty book one of these days! Be sure to say hello!