Handwritten letters by Abraham Lincoln, entries in George Washington’s diary, and photographs by General George Patton are just a few of the original documents found in the Library of Congress’ manuscript division. With 11,000 collections and 60 million manuscripts, the art of writing a research paper rises to an entirely different level. And that’s precisely why a Montgomery College professor sends her students to the library’s James Madison Memorial Building every semester in search of unique and valuable primary sources. When they go, there is a familiar face eager to help them.
Professor Saundra Rose Maley teaches English Composition at the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Campus and spreads zest and curiosity to her students. She is a three-time English major (B.A., M.A. and Ph.D.) from the University of Maryland, as well as a textbook writer and poet. More than 20 years ago, she got the idea of sending students to the Library of Congress for research from someone who worked on one of her publication’s footnotes. Maley started sending her students, first from George Washington University, where she worked at the time, and for the past 14 years, from Montgomery College.
“You order the boxes, and they roll them out to your table. Sometimes you are actually looking at the papers, and some collections must be viewed on microfilm. I thought that was fascinating, and that the students would get a kick out of it,” she said.
After several years of sending students to the Library of Congress, Jeff Flannery, head of the manuscript division, decided to send Patrick Kerwin out to the college to talk to students before they made the trek to D.C. “At first we were more concerned about the handling of the manuscripts—these are rare and valuable materials—but it morphed into us helping them and guiding them through the collections,” said Kerwin, manuscript reference librarian.
For students, having met Kerwin in class helps break down the barrier of intimidation that many feel before heading to the Library of Congress.
It’s about making connections and playing detective. You are going to be on a journey of discovery.
“I feel like Patrick helped guide us through the Library of Congress before we even got here, so I knew what I was doing and prepared myself ahead of time,” said Makayla Smith, a nursing major at MC.
There are other assignments throughout the semester, but the research paper is the main focus of the students. Some MC students, such as Kiah Herron, an environmental science major, chose to conduct research within her field. She has gone several times sifting through boxes of manuscripts associated with William Temple Hornaday, a taxidermist, zoologist and conservationist.
Students or faculty who wish to consult the manuscript division of the Library of Congress for research purposes are advised to contact the staff ahead of their visit, as some collections are stored off-site and advance notice is needed to retrieve some items.
Historic figures including Rosa Parks, Carl Sagan, Thurgood Marshall, Walt Whitman, Alexander Graham Bell, Groucho Marx, Margaret Sanger, and Susan B. Anthony have their own collections in the manuscript division.
“We have fun with it and we get to see things that, unless you are there, nobody gets to see. They are looking at original documents, history,” Maley says. “It’s about making connections and playing detective. You are going to be on a journey of discovery.”
The project has inspired another Montgomery College English professor, Lisa Nevans Locke, to take part this semester as an Achieving the Promise Academy embedded coach.
“What [the MC students] are doing is amazing. This is what historians do. There are people all over the country who would love to be able to go to the Library of Congress,” Nevans-Locke said. “This could be life changing for students.”