August Blog Post: Rare Books at the Library of Congress

Working in DC in August was exciting with the opening of the Metro’s new silver line. A station opened within walking distance of my home, significantly shortening my commute to the Library of Congress. This month, I read texts in the Rare Books and Special Collections reading room at the Library of Congress. The Special Collections are in a separate section of the library from the Main Reading Room, and researchers need specific permission to enter this area. The Special Collections hold the pre-1800 materials of the Library of Congress. I gained familiarity with handling rare books at Swem Library. The key to reading rare books without damaging them is to touch the pages as little as possible. The pages are often very fragile and brittle. Many of these books have broken spines and have to be transported very carefully. Multiple cameras in Special Collections monitor the handling of the books by the readers, and bringing any bags or even pens into the reading area is prohibited. Although the Library of Congress takes significant steps to protect these original texts, anyone can apply for permission to read them because it is considered the library of the people.

While working in the Special Collections, I read an account by John Smith, entitled: A description of New England, or, The obseruations and discoueries of Captain John Smith (admiral of that country) in the north of America. In the text, Smith describes his travels in New England. He surveyed the country and describes the different regions and towns. He suggests that New England is ripe for English settlement and portrays the area as full of open land and readily available resources. In particular, Smith notes that fish, timber, and agriculture will be lucrative assets for settlers. He sets out a somewhat democratic vision of America as a place where every man can be master of his own land and success is only limited by personal ability, not hierarchy. Smith neglects to include information about Native Americans or the potential challenges to settlement. He connects the English immigrating to America to a long tradition of exploration and domesticating the Earth, beginning with Adam and Eve. Smith presents a wealth of information on early America, however he also molds that information to suit his agenda.

My plan for September is to read the primary source materials I copied while in the U.K., and to continue my research in Special Collections at Swem Library.


  1. Hi Madeline, your work this summer seems really interesting! It must have been great working with such old and rare books. I was wondering if you might know when the account by John Smith was written? I was thinking that if he were to leave out the potential challenges of New England that may include the harsh winters. Although, depending on when he traveled, he may have just missed them. It’d be great to hear back from you and I hope your school year is going well! Thanks, Austin.