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You don't have to dig around in the archives to explore the Library of Congress. Alex Wong/Getty Images
Make Me Smart With Kai and Molly

10 things you didn’t know were in the Library of Congress

Tony Wagner Sep 25, 2018
You don't have to dig around in the archives to explore the Library of Congress. Alex Wong/Getty Images

You don’t have to travel Washington, D.C. or peruse some 838 miles of shelves to visit the Library of Congress.

Among the library’s 167 million items are rare books, photographs, historical recordings, baseball cards and even some human hair. Thousands of elements are added every day and millions of entries can be viewed online. 

“It’s a treasure chest,” said Carla Hayden, the current librarian of Congress, on this week’s Make Me Smart. “It’s the ultimate in terms of a library.”

Hayden also shared some of the challenges of digitizing such a vast collection and getting young people excited about the library. In that spirit, we asked you to scope out LOC.gov  and send us the best stuff you could find. Here are some of our favorites.

Ira Gershwin’s home movies

Hayden talked a bit about some of the library’s Gershwin recordings and listener Karen Richards tipped us off to much more, including Gershwin’s home movies. Here’s one from Liza Minnelli’s birthday party, in 1948.

Books from your childhood

“I found one of the first novels I read as a boy, ‘School days at Rugby,’” wrote Michael Martinez, from Schaumburg, Illinois. “Masterpiece Theater dramatized it in the early ’70s. So after reading, then seeing this great story, I was a reader for life.”

You can read a full scan of the book on LOC.gov, along with thousands of other free books.

Inspiration for a new career

We love doing the numbers, but if math isn’t your thing, the library has a bunch of other Work Progress Administration posters you can look at.

Glass flutes

Listener Leigh Checkman found some objects tied to her personal history as well and shared this via voice memo: 

“I don’t play the flute personally but my husband plays clarinet and bass clarinet. And when we were first getting to know each other, he asked me to make a glass piece for his clarinet. At the time I was a glass blower. It had never occurred to me to make anything for a music instrument. And I don’t know I was ever able to make that part for him. But he’s still playing the clarinet, the bass clarinet, in a few bands to this day. And that flute, in the Library of Congress’s website is just a beautiful object.”

Yesteryear’s news

We’re suckers for old media, so we loved the Chronicling America collection, which listener Heather Feil tipped us off to. It contains high-resolution scans of newspapers going back to 1690, searchable by date, location or subject matter.

“You can at this very moment read a Washington D.C. newspaper from December 8th, 1941 and see the response to Pearl Harbor,” she wrote. Sure enough:

The Evening Star’s edition from Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the Date that will Live in Infamy.

Historical photographs and maps from your city… 

Listener Tim Cushman showed us this one:

“I live and work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I manage environmental databases, make maps, and produce interactive 3D/VR models for an environmental consulting company. While I appreciate (and fully depend on) technology for a living, I was super excited to find historical lithographs of downtown Milwaukee from 1879 in the Library of Congress catalog. Everything in this map, from the hand-drawn horse carriages and high-detailed steamboats, to the incredibly accurate street map, is inspiring. It made my Friday to find this map on the LOC website and I printed off a copy to hang up in my office!”

…Or a glimpse at the Russian countryside.

Listener Stephen Olander-Waters tipped us off to “The Empire That Was Russia,” a Library of Congress exhibit featuring colorized photographs of Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii, who documented life in Russia in the first part of the 20th century.

Night camp by a rock on the bank of the Chusovaia, depicting the photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii and others in 1912.

A link to jazz history

Our producer Eve Troeh lived and worked in New Orleans for years, so she was thrilled to find this interview with the musician Henry Butler. “He died in July of this year and he was one of the most amazing resources and conduits of New Orleans music, culture and history,” she said. “I’m so glad his story and his music is archived for posterity in the Library of Congress!”

Your house’s fire map (maybe)

Kai lives in a 1911 house in an old Los Angeles-area neighborhood, and he’s been looking for an old Sanborn fire map of the area for a while. The maps were used by insurance companies to assess fire risk, hazards, escape routes and so on, and the Library of Congress has the world’s largest collection, searchable by city, state and building type. Kai couldn’t find his house, but maybe you can find yours.

A slice of life on the ranch

Finally, Molly found a collection of photos and audio recordings made in her home state of Montana as part of a 1979 ethnographic study. There’s a lot to explore here, but we particularly liked this interview with a rancher named Margaret Senecal. Most of it is about animal encounters.

“I could hear the voice of my aunt,” Molly said. “Every time I go there… we do the same recitation of critter life”

There’s so much more to find on the Library of Congress website. Share your favorite discoveries in our Facebook group!

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