Library of Congress Draws Passionate Docents

Posted September 6, 2011 at 5:22pm

The Library of Congress has some of the most overqualified volunteers in Washington, D.C.

In contrast to the summer interns who often lead tours of Congress, the docents at the Library of Congress include scholars and teachers who have spent years learning their way around the LOC’s Thomas Jefferson Building.

Peg Christoff first came to the Library in 1984 as a doctoral candidate and worked several year ago at the LOC’s John W. Kluge Center arranging tours for Nobel laureates and other scholars. She said she was drawn to volunteer by the grandeur of the collection, and she completed her docent training last year.

“Several years ago, I had a study desk at the Library because I was doing a project for the East-West Center on American connections to Asia,” she said. “I started looking at the Library’s collections — really looking — and suddenly realized just how much there was.”

Christoff is not the only scholar guiding visitors through the Library’s ornate halls. Giulia Adelfio, chief of visitors services at the Library of Congress, estimates that nearly two-thirds of the 170 docents volunteering have advanced degrees — and close to 90 percent are college graduates.

“We have retired executives, people from the State Department, former teachers and professors, attorneys, spouses of ambassadors and even current graduate students volunteering,” Adelfio said. “People love it. We have docents who have been volunteering here for over a decade.” 

Docents must complete a 14-week training program that runs from September to December. Training classes occur twice a week for five hours and provide candidates with a comprehensive overview of the Library’s history, holdings and physical features. 

By March, the new docents must be able to walk visitors through Johannes Gutenberg’s printing process and describe the more technical elements of the Thomas Jefferson Building’s glittering tile ceilings. 

The training is necessary because, as Christoff noted, “people will ask interesting questions from different and often surprising perspectives.”  

Given the time commitment, many volunteers are simply people who are free during the day. But all are interested in the Library’s offerings.

With a vast collection boasting more than 150 million items and a venerable building rich with architectural detail, the Library of Congress and its volunteer opportunities are a natural draw for people interested in history, literature, art and architecture. Christoff said it took her the full duration of the training program to become comfortable with all the material she needed to know to give tours, but she added that “you take notes, you type them out, you read through them on the Metro — and through that process you start to develop your own spiel.” 

Each tour tends to be unique to the docent delivering it. After mastering the information provided in training, docents are free to tailor their tours around the features of the Library that they find most compelling. 

Adelfio pointed out that “every tour is very different from the others because our docents have many different interests and passions.” 

She said the training allows docents to develop a comprehensive grasp of all of the Library’s operations and resources, which sets the volunteers apart from many of the LOC’s more specialized staff members. 

As training is primarily conducted by the heads of the Library’s departments, prospective docents have direct access to leading experts in fields like music, book restoration and art history.

“I think that’s what was really neat about the training in and of itself — to actually get to go into the lab and see what the scientists are doing to preserve the materials,” Christoff said. “And then to talk to the head of the Africa and Middle East division about these very rare documents that have been collected.” 

In the fall, Christoff will head to Towson University to teach a course on women in U.S.-Asian relations. However, she looks forward to continuing to bring out-of-town guests on her Library tour. 

“That’s the wonderful thing about it — once you’ve graduated from the docent program, you have the information forever,” she said. “It’s a truly unique opportunity to develop a lasting connection with an absolutely amazing place.”