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Stacks of History
At the world’s largest library, no one but the staff has been permitted in the stacks for nearly 25 years.
Sydney Sznajder ’15, who worked as an intern in the Publishing Office of the Library of Congress as a Comegys Bight Fellow last summer, says visiting those stacks—838 miles of shelves piled with more than 20 million books and 135 million other items (films, maps, photos, music, manuscripts, drawings, paintings)—was both “horrifying” and “every intern’s favorite task.”
“The staff loved mocking the interns before we went for the first time,” she says. “They’d take our phone numbers ‘just in case.’ We’d always go in trios, never alone, and it was dark and freezing, to preserve the stored materials.”
Books are kept in basement rooms known as “decks,” many of them accessible only by elevator and notoriously difficult to navigate. “I have a map of my favorite artifacts, including shelves devoted to every work of Dorothy Parker in every available edition and the massive World War II section, and it looks like an Excel spreadsheet,” she says. “It was really fun, and kind of terrifying.”
In the publishing office, where the mission is to make the Library’s holdings available to the public through books, calendars, notecards and other publications, Sznajder worked with writer-editor Tom Wiener and served as his research assistant on two projects. The first was a pictorial life of Mark Twain, and the other was The Forgotten Fifties, with images from the largest collection in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division—some 5 million photographs from the old Look magazine. “I was so lucky to be paired with an editor who was willing to just fold me into the process, no matter what stage he was at in what he was doing,” she says.
An American studies major and aspiring novelist, Sznajder devised a creative writing project to complement her internship. “I generated 10 pieces in three media—poems, fiction and creative nonfiction. The idea was to use the library materials as inspiration, to take advantage of three wonderful months of access to those holdings.”
It was thrilling, she says, to be part of such a magisterial institution. “Every day you’d walk in and, think, ‘Wow, I work here.’ It was much harder to leave than I expected. On the last day they let us each take one of the books they’d published over the years. It was hard to choose. And then we went into the stacks one last time, and we just didn’t want to leave.”
Sznajder was among ten Washington College students who benefited last summer from the Comegys Bight Fellowship Program, offered by the College’s C.V. Starr Center for the American Experience. Established in 2003 by Drs. Thomas and Virginia Collier of Chestertown, the program pairs students with curators and directors at distinguished national institutions where they gain hands-on experience in fully paid positions that can launch them into their careers.