Library Fellows Show Off Summer’s Treasures

Posted August 6, 2010 at 4:51pm

Carrie Smith stood at a table inside the Library of Congress last week with some unusual artifacts: two faded sheets of music, written in Yiddish, and nearly a dozen matchbox-sized Jewish prayer books.

Dozens of guests stopped at the table for a closer look at the music from the early 1900s and at the 3-inch-by-3-inch Hebrew books: one a Torah and one a children’s story about Jonah and the whale.

With a wave of her hand, Smith explained, “The sheets of music were rally songs for workers’ rights in New York City.” Leafing through the pages to show the music inside, she translated one song: “I will fight for better wages.” As for the books, she pointed to one and explained that it had been printed in 1573 in Antwerp, Belgium.

Smith has spent the past few months cataloging and digitizing the music sheets in an effort to make them more available to the public on the LOC’s online database. For each minibook, she designed and created acid-free box covers to preserve the bindings of 68 of the 153 miniature books in the Hebraic Collection at the Library.

As she described her work at the Library, Smith sounded like an expert librarian or conservationist. Guess again: She was an intern.

As a graduate student of library science at Southern Connecticut State University, Smith was one of 41 students presenting more than 100 historical objects at the Library last week.

They’re all part of the LOC’s Junior Fellows Program, a prestigious paid summer internship in which participants help the Library preview and prepare objects for the national collection.

LOC Associate Librarian for Library Services Deanna Marcum said the program started six years ago and includes a mix of undergraduate and graduate students. Most study humanities or the social sciences, and all expand the library’s reach to youth, she said.

“When we bring in the vision of the young people, they expand our view,” Marcum said. “They’re technically savvy and bring us new ways of thinking.”

The feeling seems to be mutual. Law Library Division fellow Vincent Bennett, a sophomore international affairs major at George Washington University, said he’s accustomed to working with online databases, but not manually with stack upon stack of paper. But since his summer assignment was to start sifting through 35,000 United Nations law pamphlets, he got used to manual labor fast, he said.

The students work a regular 40-hour week in one of 18 programs such as the Rare Book and Special Collections Division or the Manuscript Division. You won’t find them making copies or running errands. They become the first set of LOC eyes to examine historical objects and take new materials through the preliminary process of study and review for potential addition to the national collection. They research people who appear in pictures, phrases in newspapers, the purpose and mechanics of outdated technologies or the meaning behind symbols.

They also conserve the objects, archive them and present their findings to LOC permanent staff.

“Compared to the other internships I’ve had, this one is much more hands-on,” Smith said. “I feel like we’ve been entrusted with a lot of responsibility. People at the Library seem to genuinely care about what we are doing and are appreciative of the projects we complete.”

Sabrina Thomas, coordinator of the program, said there were more than 600 applicants to the program this year, making fellowships highly competitive but the selectees the “best of the best.” They all have high GPAs, long lists of extracurricular activities and top-notch communication skills, she said.

Some of the students are hoping to make it permanent. Ting-Hsien “Iris” Wang, a Chinese studies graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, is hoping to become part of the staff in the Asian Division where she works. This summer she’s been sifting through 20 boxes of Hong Kong newspaper clippings regarding the city’s return to China’s sovereignty in 1997. David Piper, a library school graduate working on the American Folklife Center’s Joe Glazer Collection, also hopes to be picked up full time.

Luckily for those two, and others with similar prestigious goals, Marcum said one purpose of the program is to “attract them to the profession” and LOC positions. In years past, many interns have come to work in temporary or permanent jobs at the Library, positions including processing technicians, assistants and preservationists.

Regardless of whether interns end up working at the library, the experience they take with them will surely shape their futures. Both Smith and Piper frequently used the words “Library of Congress” and “awesome” in the same sentences.

“I’m just really happy to have had this opportunity,” Smith said. “Having the chance to be a part of what goes on at the Library of Congress was exciting.”