Researching at the Library of Congress (Part II)

In part one of this essay I got you into the microfilm room. Today we’ll actually get some work done.

Ordering Microfilm
When you enter the microfilm reading room directly in front of you is the main desk. This is where you’ll come to order microfilm. You need to fill out a form for each request. Those forms will be found at a desk back off to your right in a corner next to the old card catalog (which, by the way, is useless — ignore it). The triplicate forms ask for the name of the newspaper, the dates wanted, your name, the ID number on your reader registration card and your desk number.

Be sure to get the name of the newspaper right. Some of the people who take the requests will look for any opportunity to feign ignorance or confusion and give it back to you unfilled. It’s best to include the name of the state in your request, thus if you’re asking for the Detroit Free Press, it never hurts to write “Detroit (MI) Free Press”. If the name of the paper doesn’t include the city, include that in parentheses too (e.g. “The (New York) Evening World”). When you hand in a request they look up the name of the paper in a book in order to assign a Microfilm Number on the request. If they don’t find the exact name you requested, or if there is any possibility that you could have meant one of several different publications they will often hand it back to you telling you to fix it — or worse, take the request and never fill it, while you twiddle your thumbs waiting.

Now you may be wondering a few things at this point — I certainly did on my first visit. Mainly, how do you know what they have in their holdings? One might assume that they keep a master list at the desk. No, not really. They do have a list of publications, which they are loathe to let you see, but their information on the dates they hold is sketchy at best. They won’t know if the film is available until a runner comes back empty-handed. You can avoid a lot of unfilled requests by using WorldCat (available on the microfilm room’s computers) to pre-screen your requests. There’s even some mistakes there (don’t bother asking for the Chicago Daily Drover’s Journal, for instance — the microfilm was ordered but never actually went into inventory). And don’t expect, as some do, that the library has every U.S. paper. Far from it. Their holdings concentrate on, as best I can tell, making a paper available for most major county seats in the country. Smaller papers, those that weren’t the paper of record for a county, or represented suburban counties for which a larger city paper are available, generally aren’t held here — for those you must look to state and county libraries. The LoC also doesn’t carry but a few representative papers for most major cities. Their holdings for Boston, for instance, are pretty much limited to the Globe and Post. Papers that had an unsavory reputation are generally not held. The New York Graphic and most other tabloids are missing, as are many Hearst papers.

Regarding dates, you’ll need to keep in mind that the rule for the average joe walking in is that you can’t have more than twelve reels of film at any time. If you are working with a paper for which you’re not sure how much is on a reel then your best bet is to request in the form “12 Reels Beginning January 1 1920”. Depending on who’s working, they can get pretty pissy about that twelve reel business. If you put in a new request and they find the previous twelve reels still at your desk when they make delivery some of them will march the new film right back into storage and tell you to re-request it when you’re done with what you have.

I’ve been lucky enough to become friendly with one of the runners (Kelly, who has my undying gratitude). She remembered me from previous visits and knew that I go through microfilm at a ridiculously fast clip. She got permission from the head of the department (Georgia Higley, the mere mention of whose name can sweep away bureaucracy like a magic wand) to take long lists from me and deliver hundreds of reels at a time so I didn’t keep bothering her every 15 minutes all day long. Kelly’s out-of-the-box attitude made this my most productive visit ever, but also had the unintended consequence of annoying the other people who work there who take an instant dislike to anyone who they feel is getting special attention.

Back to the request form. You’ll need to pick out a microfilm machine to work at before you make any requests since the film is delivered to you at that desk number. The microfilm room has two areas of viewers. At the back right where all the lights are turned off are the hand-cranked machines, at the front right are the automated viewers that can make photocopies. You aren’t supposed to monopolize the copy-making viewers, but rarely are there enough people doing research that you couldn’t stay on one all day long. I, however, prefer the hand-cranked variety because it’s quieter back in that darkened area, you get a bigger workspace (no room for laptops in the other area), and you don’t have traffic going by all the time. I also find I can get my work done a lot more quickly when I can see a whole page of newspaper at a time and can crank as slowly or as quickly as I like.

By the way, if you don’t know how to thread microfilm and use the machines, please do ask someone for help. If you try to figure it out yourself you WILL mess it up and cause problems that can be time-consuming to fix. The runners are your best bet for getting instruction — they will heave a great sigh and act as if you asked them a huge favor, but they will do it and trust me, things will go smoother in the long run.

Each desk has a number on it, and that number has to go on your request form. Warning! If you submit a request and then have to go to the bathroom or something while you’re waiting the runner may or may not leave the film at your desk when you’re not there. At the very least, leave a “Reader Will Return” form on your machine (you can get those at the main request desk). Some of the more anal-retentive runners still won’t leave film (I’m talking about you, Skippy) but most will.

Once you’ve filled out your request form, take it to the roped off area at the rear of the request desk. If no one is attending it, or the attendant is deeply fascinated with talking to the security guard, be patient. Wait there and try to make your presence just barely noticeable to get their attention (shuffling papers or getting a fake case of the sniffles works well). Try to avoid actually asking them to assist you — this annoys the more touchy of them no end as they believe they have much more important things to attend to than your requests — that includes perusing last night’s football scores. They’ll look over your request, find the microfilm number of the paper you requested (or tell you they can’t find it) and remove the pink copy for you to hold onto. Do hold onto it because it shows the microfilm number. The next time you ask for the same paper you can save time by filling out that number yourself (this, too, annoys at least one of them, but most are happy to have you take care of that detail for them).

I really can’t stress enough how important it is to stay on the good side of these people. If you annoy them, and they are VERY easy to annoy, and they can make the rest of your time there a living hell. There are a practically infinite number of rules that they can choose to enforce if they so decide, and you will run afoul of them pretty much no matter what you do. In fairness I think I understand the reasoning behind it all. If you’ve spent a lot of time in research libraries you will have noticed that they tend to attract a certain percentage of weirdos and nuts. The LoC is no exception, and once it becomes obvious to the staff that they have one of these on their hands, they use their deadliest weapons — that laundry list of vague rules, some of which they come up with on the spur of the moment, to gradually convince these fruit loops to take their craziness elsewhere. I’ve seen the strategy put into action and it is remarkably effective.

Ordering Bound Volumes
If you know what’s good for you just don’t. If you think there is a lot of bureaucracy involved in getting film, it’s a mere bagatelle compared to what you have to go through to see bound volumes. Take solace in the fact that the LoC has damn little on paper (read Nicholson Baker’s expose, Double Fold, to learn the whole disgusting history) so if you’re interested in comic strips chances are they don’t have any of the material in hardcopy anyway.

Open and Closed Stacks
There is actually a small subset of microfilm for which you don’t need to go through all the bureaucracy of submitting request forms. The library maintains a set of standard ‘papers of record’ in open stacks. The selection is excellent (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Washington Star, Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and a few others). These can be interesting to peruse while you’re waiting for your closed-stack orders to come through. Closed stack requests are sometimes fulfilled in as little as five to ten minutes when the library’s not busy and the runners are doing their jobs, but a busy library or an overworked runner (government employees have their own unique definition of the term ‘overworked’, of course) may take up to 45 minutes to fill your request. It’s best to come to the library with a research game plan that includes use of the open stacks during slack periods.

Taking Care of Necessities
If you’re like me and want to spend every possible minute at the library there’s a few more things I can suggest to help maximize your research time. First, bathrooms are available in the hall outside the microfilm room — use the one down the hall to the left — it’s not nearly as busy (but it’s also locked on weekends).

For lunch you can use the employee cafeteria. When you leave the microfilm room hang a right and use the stairwell opposite the elevators to go down one floor. When you leave the stairwell go left and the cafeteria is just down the hall. This used to be a quick and cheap meal. It’s still quick but nowadays anything but cheap. A slice of pizza, a salad and coffee will run you at least $10. A great alternative is available if you don’t mind eating lunch around 11:30 AM. When you walk out of the library immediately hang a right and walk to the street. Across the street and off to the right are two small cafes. Pete’s Diner serves up really excellent food at bargain prices — a delicious Thai-spiced tilapia dinner cost just $6.50 for instance. I haven’t tried the other cafe. Both of these places are packed to the gills starting at noon, but they’re practically deserted (and therefore have quick service) if you go early.

If you’re like me and want to take advantage of every minute the LoC is open, keep in mind you do have to leave before the official closing time. The cloak room has signs posted that they close half an hour before the library. So if you want your stuff back don’t wait for the last minute.

Greasing The Wheels
If you have any special requirements in the microfilm room, would like to be considered for special services (like more than 12 reels of film at a time), will want something odd that might be stored off-site, or have other questions, use the Ask A Librarian system on the LoC website. If you can get the ear of Georgia Higley and she thinks your research is worthwhile you will find that an extremely valuable asset when working in the library.

If you’re planning a trip to the LoC and there’s questions you have that you think would better be answered by someone not connected with the library feel free to fire away here on the blog or email me privately. My email address is in the sidebar to the right.

4 comments on “Researching at the Library of Congress (Part II)

  1. I’m sorry you seemed to have had such a vexing experience at the LOC. I’ve researched illustrators and cartoonists there on a number of occassions (I live in D.C.) and have had generally productive, pleasant interactions with the staff…one librariran spent a good half-hour with me going through volume after volume of indexes trying to help me get some leads on biographical information on Willy Pogany. I actually enjoy going to the world’s greatest library…

  2. Not to criticize all librarians (because all of us who do research are indebted to so many good ones), but doesn’t it often seem like you know more about a library and its holdings than the people that work there? And don’t you feel like a pest when you show them materials that they said they didn’t have?

  3. In a much changed world, I am sure, I visited the LoC during the CloseUp program I was involved with int he Spring of 1985.

    I order from the main reading room in the main library some comic items, but they weren’t available. But they did send the first Edition 1st printing of the Overstreet Price Guide. Even in 1985, I knew it was worth a couple of bucks, so I was surprised it was sent to me. Got to look over it and returned it as instructed. Not much hassle. I’d be surprised if that copy was still there over 20 years later…

  4. Hi Folks —
    It really wasn’t my intention to portray the LoC as a torture chamber. I look forward to my every visit and I get a tremendous amount of work done each time. I get along with and like most of the personnel there (Skippy the runner excepted – not his real name by the way). Yes, the security is a bit over the top, and their sometimes bizarre procedures can take getting used to, but its a small price to pay considering the rewards. Please don’t take this essay as any sort of condemnation of the library — I was just trying to tell how things work, warts and all, so that if you visit you’re properly prepared to deal with it.


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