Sarah Albee: What I Did on My Awesome Geek Vacation

From: Sarah Albee
June 22, 2012 at 05:10AM

I’ve just returned from Washington DC, where I spent a delightful few days doing image research, first at the Library of Congress, and then at the National Archives.

The Library of Congress is housed in three massive buildings right near the Capitol building. Here’s the building where you can research images.

After obtaining my researcher’s card, and clearing the very tight security, I had to take the elevator to the third floor and then walk for what felt like half a mile. I made the mistake of wearing sandals with wooden soles, which echoed loudly in those long hallways.

Here’s the National Archives. It’s not the one downtown. The images are housed in this building, which is in College Park, Maryland.

You get your researcher’s badge, then check all your stuff except your laptop and phone in the “researchers’ lockers” in the basement. Then you head up to the fifth floor, where the still pictures’ files are kept. It’s not like at LOC, where you can open drawers yourself and search through files. At NARA, you search for the general category you want (such as “Panama Canal,” or “diseases-children”) and fill out a “pull slip.” They have “pulls” a few times a day. I barely had time to do three slips before it was time to submit them. Half an hour later, a guy called my name and then wheeled a trolley with my three boxes up to my desk. You have to wear white gloves to look at the pictures.

There were researchers around me with forty boxes on their trolleys. You get the feeling that they’re there all day, every day, for weeks on end. That’s the kind of painstaking searching you have to do if you want to uncover new or long-forgotten information. It’s the opposite of what we’re used to in the fast-information, internet age. Time kind of stands still there. I was halfway through my second box when I glanced at the clock and saw that three hours had passed. It was awesome.

It was quite a contrast to go back to my brother’s bustling house. They have four kids, and my sister-in-law, Beth, is a great cook, so really interesting people drop in for dinner, as happened Tuesday night. My brother is a Chief of Staff for a senator, and he’d spent a frenetic day on the senate floor, organizing briefings with senators and doing whatever else Chiefs of Staff do. Beth works as the Deputy Washington editor at NPR News. She was on the phone with reporters (if you listen to NPR, their names would be instantly familiar to you), all the way up to eleven pm, when I went to bed. At one point, she had the phone clamped to her ear with her shoulder while she chopped onions and briefed a Famous Reporter who’d just been covering the Obama press conference, informing him that Holder’s going to be held in contempt of Congress–chop, chop, chop–and that they should really get that story onto Morning Edition–chop, chop, chop–and that “oh, yes, Mubarak’s going to die any minute.” Kind of a contrast to the day I’d spent, serenely looking at pictures.

OK, I have to show you this picture. I snapped a copy with my iPhone so it’s not great quality, but it shows a little girl who is severely infested with hookworm. I’m guessing it’s the only photo anyone ever took of her, and it’s buried in a box at the National Archives. The poor child looks so pale and ill. And if you look closely, you can see her hat behind her. For whatever reason, she decided to have her picture taken without it on. I find it a kind of haunting picture.


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