By Carol Abrams
[Carol Abrams is earning her MIS degree at the University of Tennessee.]
To celebrate two years of George Washington’s presidential library at Mount Vernon, the library staff invited librarians, faculty, and scholars at nearby institutions for a special look at the library and its collections. Dozens of guests learned about the library’s holdings and opportunities for collaboration during this exclusive event on October 1. The event was held at the library, which is located on a 15-acre site just outside the main entrance to Mount Vernon. The 45,000 square foot complex includes a reading room, a rare books and manuscripts room, a scholars’ residence and a conference wing. Its design blends into the wooded landscape.
The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington holds a treasure trove of original Washington books, manuscripts, and selections from the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association archive. It has more than 15,000 items, including approximately 2,500 rare 18th- and 19th-century volumes, a growing collection of books that were owned by Washington, and some 500 letters, ledgers, and account books that bear Washington’s writing or signature.
There are many opportunities for DC-area information professionals to enjoy the special collections and facilities, but before describing them, I will share a quote from America’s first president that is sure to delight DC/SLA members.
“Knowledge is, in every Country, the surest basis of public happiness.” (January 8, 1790)
In welcoming the group, Sarah Myers, the access services librarian, said that what makes this library shine are the personal relationships that users can develop with the librarians, historians, material culture experts, archaeologists, and horticulturalist there. “We’re friendly librarians,” she said. Everyone is welcome to visit the library for research or recreational reading as long as they make an appointment. To do so, please email the librarians at email@example.com or call 703-780-3600.
The three take-aways from the visit are the resources, the partnership opportunities, and the public events.
The library’s collection covers George Washington, Martha Washington, Mount Vernon, Colonial America, the American Revolution, the Confederation Years, slavery, domestic economies, the Early Republic, life in the eighteenth century, decorative arts, and historic preservation.
In June 2012, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association broke auction records by acquiring George Washington’s personal copy of the Constitution. The volume is the centerpiece of the Library’s collection of rare books and manuscripts.
Since the library opened, it has made other acquisitions such as a previously undocumented 90-page ledger containing the financial records of Washington’s friends and neighbors, William and George William Fairfax. The ledgers are dated 1742, 1748, 1763, and 1772, reflecting various stages in Washington’s life prior to the American Revolution. Chief Librarian and Archivist Mark Santangelo described the scholarly value of these ledgers this way, “The Fairfaxes were an elite Virginia family. Washington did business with them regularly, and he followed their lead as he sought to establish himself as a member of the Virginia gentry. He wanted to keep up with his neighbors, and these ledgers tell us what he bought from the Fairfaxes – sugar, fabrics, thread, draperies, in order to do so.”
Other recent acquisitions include a detailed account written just five months before Washington’s death in which he lists and describes 40 of the enslaved individuals who worked at his estate. Also, the library now has a rare circa-1860s ambrotype showing visitors to Washington’s Tomb. “There is a possibility that Civil War photographer Mathew Brady took this photograph, and that he’s standing there among the group,” said Santangelo.
The following are noteworthy access points to e-resources.
The Library Catalog: Find and explore the library’s collection of 20,000 secondary sources and item-level descriptions of many of the 6,000 manuscripts.
Digital Encyclopedia: Refer to 400 footnoted, scholarly articles on the totality of Washington’s life and experiences.
Digital Collections from Mount Vernon: Peruse Washington family papers; Mount Vernon farm, distillery, and gristmill reports; Mount Vernon publications; and Mount Vernon staff reports and speeches.
The library offers residential research fellowships and paid internships for graduate students. Grad students might contribute to the Digital Encyclopedia through scholarly editing, digital publishing, and multimedia creation. Joe Stoltz, the digital services librarian, manages the library’s digital humanities projects and databases, including the Digital Encyclopedia, and welcomed tech savvy grad students to contact him. Several librarians, in special collections and archives, for instance, are receptive to hosting practicums for Master’s Degree candidates in Library and Information Sciences.
The library welcomed university faculty to reach out and cited one partnership with a local professor wherein his students wrote articles – on spec – for the Digital Encyclopedia.
The Library offers monthly Ford Evening Book Talks featuring authors and historians discussing their latest books about George Washington and our nation’s Founding Era. These lectures are held in the evening and are free and open to the public (registration is required). November 12’s book talk features “Under This Roof: The White House and the Presidency – 21 Presidents, 21 Rooms, 21 Inside Stories” by Paul Brandus.
Please refer to the website for all of the public events and programs hosted by the library.
At the Library’s opening in 2013, Pulitzer-Prize-winner David McCullough spoke about Washington’s leadership. He said, “When we choose leaders, we should always take a careful look at how they’ve handled failure. George Washington is the prime example of someone who got back up, kept the faith, and kept going.”
[Some material in this article comes from the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon’s publication Washington’s Vision Comes to Life: Celebrating the Library at Mount Vernon (2014)]