D.C. Journal Part 3: Rare and Special Books

After four amazing whirlwind days in D.C. I’m back home and wiped out, but energized. Working for the Congressman has from day one been humbling and inspiring, but the last few days, seeing the things I got to see and meeting our D.C. counterparts to develop shared priorities for the coming year, I feel an enormous sense of responsibility, different than before. On another level. These posts cover the highlights of my trip, and the experiences I’ll never forget.

If you’ve been reading this series you know that I spent a lot of time on this trip inside the Library of Congress. I didn’t, however, have any time at all to explore the building. My friends expecting souvenirs are very disappointed. I’m counting on a future full of trips to D.C. where I’ll be able to remedy that.

Despite that, we had a slot on our schedule for a presentation from Mark Dimunation, Chief of the Rare Books and Special Collections Division at the Library. We were escorted by library staff to a room removed from the public area. It stored a collection of books kept under lock and key. A room adjacent to it, a reading room, overlooked the Great Hall of the library, the main floor of which sat about two floors down. An awesome bird’s eye view.

We entered the room and Mark was sitting at a great big wooden table. He wore wood-framed glasses and a tan sports coat. His shaggy gray hair and casual style told me he wasn’t much concerned with material things or cosmetic appearance. He was very comfortable. He’s been in his job at the Library for 20 years and still describes it as the greatest job in the world. When he talks about it his face lights up and his eyes glisten like a kid told she’s going to Disneyland.

Laid out neatly around him on the table and on two carts positioned on either side of him there were boxes of varying shape and size, from small and cube-like to big and flat. He explained the history of the Library. After the British burned the U.S. Capitol in the War of 1812, destroying the original Library of Congress with it, Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his entire library of about 6,500 books to Congress for whatever they’d be willing to pay. In 1851 another fire destroyed around 35,000 books, including two-thirds of Jefferson’s original collection. In 1998 Mark was hired and began the quest to restore Jefferson’s library with exact editions of the books Jefferson would have owned, no replicas or later editions allowed. His work continues.

Mark picked up one of the smaller boxes and slid another box out from inside it. He set that box on the table in front of him and opened the flap. “This (dramatic pause) is the first book ever printed in what we now call the United States,” he said, choosing his words carefully. Titled, The Bay Psalm Book, it was printed in 1640 in Cambridge, Mass. There are eleven known copies in the world, and one sold at auction a few years ago for $14.2 million.

Next, he picked up another box. This one a little squarer than the last. From this he removed another older looking book, a deep red in color, with a little golden latch on the side, which I thought looked like a bible. Mark offered the book to my coworker Brendan, “Put your hand on it,” he said. Brendan did and Mark explained that this was, in fact, the bible Abraham Lincoln had been sworn in on. Later, Barack Obama would choose the same bible for his own swearing-in. It goes without saying that I’m very jealous of Brendan right now.

We saw many more pieces, including the contents of Abraham Lincoln’s pockets when he was assassinated and some Washington Territory books and ephemera.

The piece that had the most profound impact on me was one Mark pulled from one of the large flat boxes on the table. He opened it to reveal the very first printing of the final draft of the Declaration of Independence. He told us the story of its creation, that Jefferson wrote the first draft and that 86 edits were applied before the final version we saw before us. Being a writing nerd, I clumsily asked about that process, being curious about what the changes were. Mark gave us a little more detail about the process and then told us the story of one of the edits, one made by Jefferson himself before handing it over to the other founders for review. At one point, he edits out one word for another. Not just a line through it, but a box was drawn around it and filled in completely with ink and then smudged out. Over the top of it, he wrote the word, “citizens.” It was never disclosed by Jefferson what the word he crossed out was, and it’s been a point of speculation for many years. Finally in 2010 through the use of spectral imaging analysis, they were able to uncover the secret word.

Jefferson had originally written the word “subjects.”

This means that in the course of his writing, I imagine in a moment where he’d hit a stride – that zone you get in when you’re writing without thinking and everything around you disappears. I imagine him writing that word and immediately catching himself. “No! No, we are NOT subjects anymore!” Is what he probably thought as he hastily smudged out that word. I can imagine the sense of pride he felt writing the word ‘citizens’ over the top. He probably paused and beamed at it for a long moment, filled with joy. He may have even taken a break, and gone for a walk and to clear his head before continuing. That’s what I would have done.

This story also reminds me that these people we put on pedestals (literally or figuratively), were just people like us. They made mistakes. They brought emotion into the work, they felt anxious and insecure. Those things powered them like they power us. They were figuring it out as they went along, building their parachutes after they jumped. I think it serves us well in the face of the challenges of the day to keep that in mind. We’re not so different from our heroes.

Thanks for reading.


2 thoughts on “D.C. Journal Part 3: Rare and Special Books

  1. Pingback: D.C. Journal Part 1: Rep. Joe Kennedy | writeROBwrite

  2. Pingback: D.C. Journal Part 2: Tour of the Capitol Dome | writeROBwrite

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