Get out your white gloves and lemon juice! Reel archivist in ‘National Treasure’

I have been exploring quite a few reel archivist portrayals lately, inspired by articles I have recently read, as detailed in my “Reel librarians vs. reel archivists” post. In all the articles I read about reel archivists, Diane Kruger’s role as Dr. Abigail Chase in National Treasure (2004) was highlighted, so I thought it would be perfect timing to revisit that film, “arguably one of the best known movies with an archival plot line” (Region of PEEL Archives).

So get out your white gloves and lemon juice — this analysis post is a long one!

*SPOILERS AHEAD THROUGHOUT*

Here’s a trailer for National Treasure:

National Treasure Official Trailer (2004),” uploaded by Jake Smith, is licensed under a Standard YouTube License

Below is a quick recap of the film from the “Crossing a Librarian with a Historian: The Image of Reel Archivists” article by Aldred, Burr, and Park:

“Benjamin Franklin Gates is a treasure hunter searching for the Founding Fathers’ hidden treasure. Clues lead him to the conclusion that he must steal the Declaration of Independence , where Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), National Archives and Records Administration employee, gets caught up in the affair, and helps Gates discover the treasure.” (p. 88)

Diane Kruger gets 2nd billing in the cast, and is the top female lead. According to the film’s IMDb.com trivia page, her character’s name, Abigail Chase “is a combination of Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, and Samuel Chase, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and later an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.”

Here’s how Aldred, Burr, and Park describe the character of Dr. Chase and how she fits into the history of reel archivists who are also main characters:

“Those reel archivists who were main characters were portrayed in an overall positive light, rather than as a stereotype. They were the heroes of the film, solving mysteries, fighting vampires, and trying to help those in need. They were educated individuals with distinct personalities. Abigail Chase of National Treasure (2004) was a curious, intelligent archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration. She was the only reel archivist examined whose level of education was explicit (doctorate), who was the protagonist’s love interest, and was the only female main character in the film. Unfortunately, even though she was positively portrayed, she was never formally identified as an archivist at any time during the film. To the audience, she is nothing more than a knowledgeable treasure hunter.” (p. 84-85)

First archives spotting:

At 23 mins into the film, Gates is trying to alert authorities that Ian Howe (Sean Bean) will try to steal the Declaration of Independence. After getting laughed out of the FBI, Gates and his sidekick assistant, Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), set out for the National Archives.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure' (2004)

National Archives building in Washington D.C.

Why the National Archives?

Right before this scene, Gates and Riley discuss who they should contact to help prevent the theft of the document.

GatesWe don’t need anyone crazy. We just need someone short of crazy.

RileyObsessed?

GatesPassionate.

As Buckley states in the “The Truth is in the Red Files” essay: “The next scene shows the two characters waiting for a meeting with the archivist, indicating that the archivist had the requisite ‘passion’ they were seeking” and “Equally telling is the portrayal of the archivist, and the emphasis placed on her passionate dedication to her profession” (p. 121).

But before showcasing her passion, Dr. Chase demonstrates a healthy dose of skepticism.

As Gates and Riley wait, Dr. Chase’s assistant announces that “Dr. Chase can see you now.” This reveals her qualifications immediately but does not reveal her gender. The two men are (annoyingly) surprised that “Dr. Chase” is a woman.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure' (2004)

Just a sec, I’m busy

I also love that Chase has a “Rosie the Riveter” poster in her office, which you can spy in the upper right corner in the screenshot below.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure' (2004)

Dr. Abigail Chase and Rosie the Riveter — we can do it!

They exchange a bit of small talk. It’s also important to note that Gates has stated his surname is “Brown,” because his family has a less-than-stellar reputation.

ChaseNice to meet you.

GatesYour accent. Pennsylvania Dutch?

ChaseSaxony German.

RileyYou’re not American?

ChaseOh, I am an American. I just wasn’t born here. 

[Note:  I really liked this brief exchange. It not only neatly dispatched the issue of Diane Kruger’s real-life German accent, but also reinforced the idea that there are Americans born abroad who are just as American and as patriotic as those born in the U.S. Full disclosure, I also happen to be an American born abroad!]

In this exchange below, you can also get the sense of how Gates thinks he is being clever in trying to “talk around” Chase, but she’s not having any of it. Her questions are insightful, knowledgeable, and to the point.

ChaseNow, you told my assistant that this was an urgent matter.

GatesYes, ma’am. Well, I’m gonna get straight to the point. Someone’s gonna steal the Declaration of Independence.

Riley: It’s true.

ChaseI think I’d better put you gentlemen in touch with the FBI.

GatesWe’ve been to the FBI.

ChaseAnd?

RileyThey assured us that the Declaration cannot possibly be stolen.

ChaseThey’re right.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure' (2004)

Don’t try to play me, dudes. I know what’s up.

GatesMy friend and I are less certain. However, if we were given the privilege of examining the document, we would be able to tell you for certain if it were actually in any danger.

Chase:  [shooting him a knowing look, sits back in her chair] What do you think you’re gonna find?

Gates:  [getting uncomfortable] We believe that there’s an… encryption on the back.

Chase:  An encryption, like a code?

GatesYes, ma’am.

ChaseOf what?

GatesUh… a cartograph.

ChaseA map.

GatesYes, ma’am.

ChaseA map of what?

Gates: The location of… [nervously clears throat, as per the subtitles] hidden items of historic and intrinsic value.

Chase:  [shakes head as though to clear it] A treasure map?

RileyThat’s where we lost the FBI.

ChaseYou’re treasure hunters, aren’t you?

GatesWe’re more like treasure protectors.

ChaseMr. Brown, I have personally seen the back of the Declaration of Independence, and I promise you, the only thing there is a notation that reads, “Original Declaration of Independence, dated… “

Gates:  … “Fourth of July, 1776.” Yes, ma’am.

ChaseBut no map.

GatesIt’s invisible.

ChaseOh, right.

RileyAnd that’s where we lost the Department of Homeland Security.

ChaseWhat led you to assume there’s this invisible map?

GatesWe found an engraving on the stem of a 200-year-old pipe.

RileyOwned by Freemasons.

ChaseMay I see the pipe?

RileyWe don’t have it.

ChaseDid Bigfoot take it? [This line was used in the trailer!]

GatesIt was nice meeting you.

Lasting 3 minutes in total, what is the ultimate point of this introductory scene? It establishes Dr. Chase as smart, credentialed, skeptical, and protective of historical artifacts — plus, she can more than hold her own against men who think they know more than she does. It also establishes a lot of backstory and exposition in a brief amount of time.

This scene is also vital because after this exchange with Dr. Chase, Gates decides he has to steal the document himself, in order to protect it. Riley then tries to convince Gates that stealing the Declaration of Independence cannot be done.

Library of Congress research scene

Cue the obligatory research scene in a library!

At 28 minutes into the film, the camera pans down the iconic Library of Congress Reading Room, to where Riley and Gates are seated at a desk, surrounded by books. And it’s these readily available books that allow them to figure out a way into the National Archives to steal the Declaration of Independence.

Don’t try this at home, y’all. Or in your local public library. 😉

Screenshot collage from 'National Treasure' (2004)

Research in the Library of Congress

RileyI’ve brought you to the Library of Congress. Why? Because it’s the biggest library in the world. Over 20 million books. And they’re all saying the same exact thing: Listen to Riley. What you have here, my friend, is an entire layout of the Archives, short of builder’s blueprints. You’ve got construction orders, phone lines, water and sewage — it’s all here. Now, when the Declaration is on display, ok, it is surrounded by guards and video monitors and a little family from Iowa and little kids on their eighth-grade field trip. And beneath an inch of bulletproof glass is an army of sensors and heat monitors that will go off if someone gets too close with a high fever. Now, when it’s not on display, it is lowered into a four-foot-thick concrete, steel-plated vault that happens to be equipped with an electronic combination lock and biometric access-denial systems.

GatesYou know, Thomas Edison tried and failed nearly 2,000 times to develop the carbonized cotton-thread filament for the incandescent light bulb…. He only had to find 1 way to make it work.

Gates then puts a book on the table.

[Note:  As according to IMDb.com trivia page, “The book that Ben shows Riley in the Library of Congress, that has the information about the Preservation Room, is called ‘The Earth System.’ It is some sort of a textbook, and it is authored by Lee Kump, James F. Kasting, and Robert G. Crane. The ISBN is 0131420593.”]

Gates: The Preservation Room. Enjoy. Go ahead. Do you know what the Preservation Room is for?

RileyDelicious jams and jellies?

GatesNo. That’s where they clean, repair and maintain all the documents and the storage housings when they’re not on display or in the vault. Now, when the case needs work they take it out of the vault, directly across the hall, and into the Preservation Room. The best time for us, or Ian, to steal it would be during the gala this weekend, when the guards are distracted by the VIPs upstairs. But we’ll make our way to the Preservation Rom, where there’s much less security.

RileyHuh…. this might be possible.

They then prepare for the heist… uh, rescue.

Chase in charge:

Riley hacks into a computer system to heat up the glass surrounding the Declaration of Independence, in order to force the document into the Preservation Room. Dr. Chase is immediately alerted to this and sets off, with a male colleague, into the basement to enter the room. It’s clear that Dr. Chase is the one in charge, and we hear her narration as she orders a full diagnostics.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure' (2004)

Chase in charge

Of course, Dr. Chase does not realize that she is unwittingly helping Gates and Riley steal the very artifact she is pledged to protect!

A gala, a chase, and Chase:

A gala scene at the National Archives begins at 37 minutes into the film, and we get to see Dr. Chase all dressed up in a classic cocktail dress and kitten heels. Gates hands her champagne for a toast, “Here’s to the men who did what was considered wrong, in order to do what they knew was right. What they knew was right.” Chase’s eyes narrow as she listens. She knows he’s up to something!

Gates then uses Chase’s fingerprints on the glass of champagne to get into the Preservation Room! Gates does successfully steal the document but also encounters the rival team of (evil) treasure hunters, led by Ian Howe (Sean Bean). As Gates tries to escape through the National Archives — buying a dummy copy of the document in the lobby’s gift shop! — Abby spies Gates and, full of suspicion, follows him.

RileyBen, the mean Declaration lady’s behind you.

Totally unafraid — and undeterred by being called the “mean Declaration lady” — Chase then calls out for security, grabs the rolled-up document, and attempts to run back to the National Archives in heels. Unfortunately, that’s when the baddies grab her AND the document. The lead baddie, Howe, tries to scare her into giving up the document, but she doesn’t give in. Gates and Riley then follow her in a van and rescue her, but Kruger did most of her own stunts in this scene, as evidenced by this brief interview:

National Treasure – Diane Kruger Interview,” uploaded by Novidades Cinema – Movie News, is licensed under a Standard YouTube License

Turning Chase into a fellow treasure hunter protector:

As they speed away from the baddies, Chase is still not having any of it:

ChaseI’m not all right. Those men have the Declaration of Independence!

Gates shows her the real document, meaning that the baddies got the dummy poster copy.

Chase:  [attempting to grab the document] Give me that! Who were those men?

GatesJust the guys we warned you would steal the Declaration of Independence.

RileyAnd you didn’t believe us.

GatesWe did the only thing we could do to keep it safe.

The truth then comes out about Gates’s true identity.

ChaseI want that document, Mr. Brown!

GatesMy name is Gates.

Chase:  Did you just say Gates? Gates? You’re that family with the conspiracy theory about the Founding Fathers? You know what? I take it back. You’re not liars. You’re insane.

The two men then reveal their plan to run chemical tests on the Declaration of Independence to uncover the “invisible map” they had alluded to in their earlier conversation with Chase.

ChaseYou can’t seriously intend to run chemical tests on the Declaration of Independence in the back of a moving van.

RileyWe have a clean-room environment all set up. EDS suits, a particulate air filtration system, the whole shebang.

ChaseReally?

It is nice to hear that Chase had set up a “clean-room environment” to preserve the archival integrity of the document. And that Dr. Chase is impressed by this.

GatesWe can’t go back there. … We need those letters.

ChaseWhat letters?You have the original Silence Dogood letters? Did you steal those, too?

GatesWe have scans of the originals. Quiet, please.

ChaseHow’d you get scans?

GatesOh, I know the person who has the originals. Now shush.

ChaseWhy do you need them?

GatesShe really can’t shut her mouth, can she? Tell you what, look. I will let you hold on to this [hands her the Declaration of Independence in the case] if you promise to shut up, please. Thank you.

While he’s thinking and talking with Riley, Chase is plotting yet another escape. She’s scrappy, isn’t she?! She tries to run, but she doesn’t get very far. And this next bit is the final turn in the screw, when Chase becomes complicit in the treasure hunter adventure.

ChaseI’m not going. Not without the Declaration.

GatesYou’re not going with the Declaration.

Chase Yes, I am. I’m not letting it out of my sight, so I’m going.

As the Region of Peel Archives put it:

“Gates and his assistant Riley Poole manage to steal the document from the National Archives, and while doing so they unwittingly involve Abigail Chase, one of the nation’s archivists. The three of them then attempt to locate the treasure before a ruthless gang of criminals can. It is interesting that while dragged in against her will initially, Chase comes to embrace the adventure, although she, like any good archivist, remains fiercely protective of the Declaration document.”

I was also super impressed by Diane Kruger’s facial expressions throughout these scenes. Her suspicious glare is excellent, and it deepens as she gets drawn into the plot, as evidenced in the screenshots below. The top screenshot is from her introductory scene, the middle is from the gala, and the bottom is when she holds onto the Declaration of Independence case in the van.

Screenshot collage from 'National Treasure' (2004)

Suspicious minds…

Destroying the Declaration of Independence:

The trio then travel to visit Gates’s father, played by Jon Voight, in order to uncover the code on the back of the Declaration of Independence. Instead of a “clean-room environment,” they have a dining table, a hairdryer, and a bowl of lemons. At least they’re wearing white gloves?! No wonder Dr. Chase is looking so guilty.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure' (2004)

Looking guilty

Gates then takes a lemon and is about to squeeze it onto the back of the Declaration of Independence. Not so fast!

Chase:  You can’t do that.

GatesBut it has to be done.

ChaseThen someone who is trained to handle antique document is gonna do it.

GatesOk.

ChaseOk. Now, uh, if there’s a secret message, it’ll probably be marked by a symbol in the upper right-hand corner. [rubs a Q-tip on the lemon] I’m so getting fired for this.

GateWe need more juice.

ChaseWe need more heat. [she grabs a hairdryer!]

Chase then handles the hairdryer. With gloves on. As any self-respecting archivist would do. 😉

Screenshots from 'National Treasure' (2004)

The white gloves make it all okay

Chase, Riley, and Gates are definitely in it together now!

Buckley comments on the juxtaposition of a reel archivist protecting and destroying the archival documents at the same time:

“Although the objections of the archivist [in National Treasure] to the use (abuse?) of archival documents are overruled in favour of the entertainment value of high-speed chases and nail-biting cliffhangers, those objections are strongly voiced, and they are heard. While the audience may enjoy the entertaining machinations involved in retrieving the Declaration of Independence from the National Archives, the authority of this document or of its custodians is never in question. The continued importance placed on archival value is evident in the scenes involving the Declaration, as well as in the preservation and display of the Silence Dogood letters in the Benjamin Franklin Archive.” (p. 121)

They make their way to the next clue in the Silence Dogood letters in the Benjamin Franklin Archive as then on to the Liberty Bell and the Independence Hall in Philadelphia. At Independence Hall, at 1 hour and 17 minutes into the film, they unfurl the Declaration of Independence in order to read the next clue, and Gates tries to school Chase on archival etiquette. And bless Dr. Chase’s sassy heart.

ChaseHere, help me.

GatesCareful.

ChaseYou think?

Screenshot from 'National Treasure' (2004)

The Declaration of Independence returns to Independence Hall!

Calling the shots:

The baddies then show up, and Riley and Chase run off together with the document case, in order to create a diversion from Gates. Lots of ACTION and PLOT and CLUES ensue, but it finally comes down to Chase figuring out how to make a trade with the baddies.

Or as the bald baddy says to Gates, “Ask your girlfriend [referring to Chase]. She’s the one calling all the shots now. She won’t shut up.” Hah! 😀

The final action scene takes place in an underground passageway and vault, where they find the hidden treasure. But what is the most valuable hidden treasure for the reel archivist?

Screenshot from 'National Treasure' (2004)

The pen is mightier than the sword… a reel archivist admiring scrolls from the lost Library of Alexandria

I loved that Chase was not wooed or awed by the gold and the jewels but rather by the scrolls from Alexandria!

As the Region of Peel Archives states:

The team is ultimately successful, locating the treasure deep underground in Manhattan. Ever the faithful archivist, Chase is not drawn to the gold jewelry, statues, or other artifacts found in the huge underground cavern, but rather to what she identifies as scrolls from the lost Library of Alexandria.

Abigail Chase also made an impression on Ben Gates, as the first things Gates asks the FBI is that “Dr. Chase gets off clean, without a mark on her record.” I really appreciated that Gates (a) put her professional needs first, and (b) referred to Chase by her title and credentials.

Getting the last line:

In the final scene, Chase and Gates and Riley are all talking together in a garden setting. It’s clear Chase and Gates are together, as they are holding hands. Ever the professional, Chase has a book in her hand.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure' (2004)

Final scene from ‘National Treasure’ (2004)

Riley then takes off in his new sports car, and Chase has one last surprise for Gates:

ChaseI made something for you.

GatesYou did?

ChaseA map.

GatesWhere does it lead to?

ChaseYou’ll figure it out.

I love that the reel archivist gets the last line in the movie!

Alternate ending in the National Archives:

But Gates did not get the last line in the movie in the original ending, which was changed after the original didn’t test well with audiences.

The original ending was set back in the National Archives, with the Declaration of Independence back in its case. Gates is looking over the Constitution, also in a glass case. Chase has her arm through Gates’s arm, so it’s still clear that they are together.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure' (2004)

Alternate original ending from ‘National Treasure’ (2004)

ChaseWhat are you thinking about?

GatesNothing.

ChaseThere’s nothing on the back of the Constitution.

GatesI wasn’t thinking that. Are you sure?

ChaseI already checked it out. [They laugh together]

This original exchange is funny — and reinforces Chase’s ambition and initiative! — but Riley gets the last line:  “Guys, do you think we could keep some of the treasure this time?

I like that they changed the ending so that the reel archivists gets the last laugh!

The importance of the reel archivist role:

Ultimately, I agree with Buckley, who sums up Dr. Abigail Chase’s role and this popcorn action film this way:

“Buried beneath the stereotypical images are elements of the truth:  that records matter, that protection of the record matters, and that the protectors of the records are dedicated to their profession.” (p. 120-121)

Although the film is full of plot holes and historical errors — see here for a video run-down of all the historical inaccuracies in 13 minutes or less — I enjoyed rewatching and analyzing Dr. Chase’s character, and how refreshingly original and non-stereotypical her character turns out to be. I think a lot of this comes down to how Diane Kruger played the character, with an innate sense of feistiness, as a woman who is used to dealing with men who underestimate her. She does NOT underestimate herself, and I agree that Dr. Abigail Chase is ultimately a positive portrayal of a reel archivist. I would also argue, although she is not technically a reel librarian (I do, however, choose to include both reel archivists and reel librarians in my research), that she does fit into the category of Atypical Portrayals, and her importance to the film lands it in the Class I category.

Continuing the conversation:

Have you seen the National Treasure film, or it sequel? What do you think of the Dr. Abigail Chase character and her role as a reel archivist? Do you find her portrayal stereotypical, or not? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used:

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The Quotable Librarian of Congress

For another post in the “Quotable Librarian” series — and to help celebrate our Independence Day today — I thought it would be appropriate to highlight inspirational quotes from our very own Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden.

Carla Hayden is our current and 14th Librarian of Congress, becoming the first woman and the first African American to lead our national library. She received her master’s and doctorate degrees in Library Science from the University of Chicago Graduate Library School, and she worked as a children’s and public librarian.

Introduction to Carla Hayden:

Here’s a short (2 minute) video introduction of Carla Hayden, in which she describes her journey from nomination, confirmation and inauguration as 14th Librarian of Congress. (Click on the screenshot below to watch the video in a new window.)

Screenshot of "Introducing Carla Hayden (Video)," Library of Congress, 2016

Click screenshot to watch “Introducing Carla Hayden (Video),” Library of Congress, 2016

Quotes from Carla Hayden:


Librarians were called during that time [during the Patriot Act] feisty fighters for freedom, and we were very proud of that label.

interview with Jeffrey Brown, PBS, 2016


Public service has been such a motivating factor for me, in my life and my career. When I received the call from the White House about this opportunity, and was asked, “Will you serve?” Without hesitation I said “yes.”

~ remarks from her swearing-in ceremony as Librarian of Congress, Sept. 2016


As the first woman, and the first African-American, in this post, I am truly grateful and humbled. It is especially moving because AfricanAmericans were once punished with lashes and worse for learning to read. As a descendent of people who were denied the right to read, to now have the opportunity to serve and lead the institution that is our national symbol of knowledge, is a historic moment. As Fredrick Douglass” said, “Once you learn to read you will be forever free.” And now everyone has the opportunity to be empowered by literacy.

~ remarks from her commencement address at Rutgers University-Camden, May 2017


Librarians have been pounding on this issue [fake news and information literacy] in a different way for a while — that just having computer literacy is great, but as information professionals, we’re always looking at what’s the most authoritative source for the information and teaching information literacy. It’s great to have all this stuff, but you need to teach how to use the library in schools. They need to be teaching information literacy as soon as the kid can push a button.

~ interview with the New York Times Magazine, Jan. 2017


You can also follow Carla Hayden on Twitter, and click here for more statements and multimedia from our 14th Librarian of Congress.

And if you are in the mood for even more, please revisit my previous “Librarians of Congress” post! I do a deep dive into the history of the Library of Congress, how the Librarian of Congress position came about, as well as the major accomplishments of each Librarian of Congress.

Librarians of Congress

After last week’s post analyzing the reel librarians featured in All the President’s Men (1976), including two library clerks who worked at the Library of Congress, I was inspired to dig into the history of our own Librarians of Congress.

What is the Library of Congress, and when was it established?

Before we even get into the Librarians of Congress, first we need to know what the Library of Congress actually is. The Library of Congress — referred to by librarians as either “LOC” or “LC” for short — is a research library that was established primarily to serve the United States Congress. It is considered the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States, as well as the largest library in the world. It is also considered the de facto national library of the United States, but that took quite a long time to develop!

Library of Congress Reading Room

Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress in the Thomas Jefferson Building (image in the public domain)

1783:

  • James Madison is credited with the initial idea of a congressional library

1800:

  • President John Adams signed an act of Congress providing for the transfer of the seat of government from Philadelphia to the new capital city of Washington
  • Part of that legislation appropriated funds for a collection of books for the expressed use of Congress
  • The first “Library of Congress” collection consisted of 740 books and 3 maps, all bought from London

1814:

  • The Library of Congress had a collection of 3,000 volumes
  • The War of 1812 led to the burning of the capitol building, and the library’s original collection was destroyed by fire.

1815:

  • Thomas Jefferson sold his personal library of over 6,500 volumes to Congress, to help rebuild the Library of Congress.

1897:

  • New headquarters were established in the building we now refer to as the “Thomas Jefferson Building” and its iconic circular “Reading Room”
  • With over 840,000 volumes, the Library of Congress became known as the largest library in the United States
  • Much of this expansion of its holdings and influence is thanks to then-Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford, whose ultimate goal was to turn the Library of Congress into a de facto national library. His progressive policies, from 1865-1897, included:
    • collecting Americana and American literature
    • regulating copyright registration and putting that back under the purview of the Library of Congress
    • acquiring the Smithsonian libraries
    • restoring the Library’s international book exchange

Was the “Librarian of Congress” position established at the same time as the Library of Congress itself?

No, it wasn’t until 1802 — two years after the Library of Congress was officially established under President John Adams — that President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill that provided the basic structure for the position. This bill allowed the president to appoint an “overseer” of the Library of Congress and established a Joint Committee in Congress to help regulate the Library (basically, the means to keep funding it!).

This structure is still largely in place today, with the President appointing a nominee for Librarian of Congress. It was not until 1897, however, that this presidential nomination required Senate approval (“advice and consent”). This requirement elevated the profile and importance of the position.

There were also no term limits originally for the “overseer” — AKA the “Librarian of Congress” — essentially making the position a lifetime appointment. It wasn’t until 2015 that President Barack Obama signed into law the “Librarian of Congress Succession Modernization Act of 2015,” which put a 10-year term limit on the position with an option for reappointment.

How many Librarians of Congress have actually been librarians?

By the term “librarian,” I am referring to the modern definition of a librarian as an information professional with a degree in Library Science or related field (e.g. Information Science).

The answer of how many Librarians of Congress have actually been librarians is more complicated than I expected. Including the current one and dating back to 1802, there have only been 14 official Librarians of Congress in total. There was also an Acting Librarian of Congress, who served inbetween the 13th and 14th appointees, from 2015-2016.

Librarians of Congress… Out of 14 official Librarians of Congress, 1802-2017 Including the Acting Librarian of Congress, 2015-2016
… with advanced education and/or degrees 14 15
… with library science degrees 2 3
… with library experience prior to working at the Library of Congress  3 4
… who were white males 13 13
… who were/are female (reflecting 75-80% of the librarian workforce in the U.S.) 1 1
… who are librarians of color 1 2

One caveat: Library science as a science and educational degree in the United States was not established until 1887, the year that Melvil Dewey founded the world’s first library school at Columbia College, now Columbia University, in New York (after first proposing the idea in 1883). It is for this reason that Dewey is often referred to in the U.S. as the “Father of Modern Librarianship.” 1889 marked the year of the first graduating class from Columbia.

So if we take the year 1889 as the starting point for the possibility of having “actual librarians” and compare that with the historical list of Librarians of Congress, that would reduce the list of possibles to 8 (or 9, if you count the Acting Librarian of Congress from 2015-2016). And then counting from that list those who have been actual librarians, it brings the percentage up to 25% (2 of 8), or 33% (3 of 9) if you count the Acting Librarian. That’s still a very low percentage of Librarians of Congress being professionally trained and educated librarians.

Who is the current Librarian of Congress?

Carla Hayden is our current and 14th Librarian of Congress, becoming the first woman and the first African American to lead our national library. She received her master’s and doctorate degrees in Library Science from the University of Chicago Graduate Library School. I believe that also makes her the first Librarian of Congress to have earned a doctorate in library science!

Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress (2016- )

Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress (2016- )

Her librarian experience is deep and varied:

  • 1973-1982:  Children’s librarian and then young adult services coordinator at Chicago Public Library
  • 1982-1987:  Library services coordinator for Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry
  • 1987-1991:  Assistant Professor of Library Science at the University of Pittsburgh
  • 1991 to 1993:  Deputy commissioner and chief librarian of the Chicago Public Library
  • 1993-2016:  Director at Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland
    • 2003-2004:  President of the American Library Association (ALA)

I earned my own library science degree in 2003, just a few weeks before Carla Hayden became ALA President. Her theme during her ALA Presidency was “Equity of Access,” and she has continued to be an outspoken voice for librarian advocacy. When she was named Ms. Magazine‘s 2003 Woman of the Year, she stated in her interview:

Libraries are a cornerstone of democracy—where information is free and equally available to everyone. People tend to take that for granted, and they don’t realize what is at stake when that is put at risk.

In a subsequent article in Ms. Magazine in 2016, Hayden stated:

(Librarians) are activists, engaged in the social work aspect of librarianship. Now we are fighters for freedom.

Carla Hayden is also active on Twitter, via the Library of Congress Twitter account!

Who were the previous Librarians of Congress?

All of the previous Librarians of Congress have in common a couple of visual traits:  white and male. They were all also highly educated. Here’s a look at the Previous Librarians of Congress page from the Library of Congress website:

Previous Librarians of Congress, 1802-2015

I have compiled a list below of the previous Librarians of Congress, which includes the time period in which they served in that role, their previous professions, and items of note during their tenure.

 1. John J. Beckley (1802–1807)

  • Former American political campaign manager
  • Served concurrently as Librarian of Congress and as Clerk of the House of Representatives until his death in 1807
  • Oversaw the creation of the first “Library of Congress” collection, consisting of 740 books and 3 maps

2. Patrick Magruder (1807–1815)

  • Lawyer
  • Also served concurrently as Librarian of Congress and as Clerk of the House of Representatives
  • After the War of 1812 and the destruction of the Library’s collection, he resigned after an investigation by Congress into the destruction of the Library and the use of Library funds

3. George Watterston (1815–1829)

  • Former lawyer and newspaper editor
  • The first full-time Librarian of Congress (the position was separated from the Clerk of the House of Representatives in 1815) — and therefore sometimes referred to as the first true “Librarian of Congress”
  • Oversaw the restoration of the Library’s collection and the purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library of books
  • Published the Library’s first public catalog of its holdings — and was criticized by Congress for doing so, due to its expense!
  • Strong advocate for expansion of the Library and lobbied successfully for additional staff, naming an Assistant Librarian in 1828
  • Opposed the election of President Andrew Jackson and was subsequently replaced

4. John Silva Meehan (1829–1861)

  • Printer and publisher
  • During his tenure, several of the Library’s functions were transferred to other government agencies, thus weakening the role and purpose of the Library of Congress (public document distribution activities to the Department of the Interior; international book exchange program to the Department of State; depository of copyrighted books to the Patent Office)
  • During his entire tenure, the chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library — not the Librarian of Congress! — selected the books for the Library’s collection
  • Served under 9 U.S. Presidents

5. John Gould Stephenson (1861–1864)

  • Physician and soldier
  • During his tenure, also served as physician for the Union Army during the Civil War

6. Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1864–1897)

  • Journalist and publisher
  • Served as Assistant Librarian to Stephenson
  • Progressive leadership that transformed the Library of Congress into a national institution that also served the American public
  • Oversaw the building of a new home for the collection, creating a physical structure for the Library of Congress, separate from the Capitol building
  • Retired to become Chief Assistant Librarian under the next two Librarians of Congress, a position he held until his death in 1908

7. John Russell Young (1897–1899)

  • Journalist, author, and diplomat
  • Oversaw the physical move of the collection from the Capitol building to the new Library of Congress building
  • Served only two years, until his death in 1899

8. Herbert Putnam (1899–1939)

  • Former lawyer
  • Although he did not have a degree in library science (it was still a new degree), he was the first Librarian of Congress to have prior library experience, having served as Librarian of the Minneapolis Athenaeum (1884-87), the Minneapolis Public Library (1887-91), and the Boston Public Library (1895-99)
  • Longest-serving Librarian of Congress
  • Developed the Library of Congress Classification system, still in use today by the Library of Congress and academic libraries worldwide
  • Urged the creation of a second Library of Congress building; the John Adams Building opened in 1939
  • Upon his retirement, Putnam was made Librarian of Congress Emeritus

9. Archibald MacLeish (1939–1944)

  • Former lawyer but best known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and writer
  • Controversial appointment, which included a letter writing campaign by the American Library Association (ALA) against MacLeish’s nomination. Part of the reason the ALA opposed the appointment? The fact that he had not attended a professional school of library science and had no library experience!
  • Developed policies, procedures, and the first explicit statements of the institution’s goals and collection development criteria
  • Created a new program of resident fellowships for young scholars and the Fellows of the Library of Congress, a group of prominent writers and poets

10. Luther H. Evans (1945–1953)

  • Political scientist
  • Served under MacLeish as head of the Legislative Reference Service and later Chief Assistant Librarian of Congress
  • One of the few government officials to openly resist McCarthyism
  • Resigned from the Library to accept a position as UNESCO’s third Director General, the only American to hold this post

11. Lawrence Quincy Mumford (1954–1974)

  • Bachelor of Library Science degree at the School of Library Science, Columbia University
  • Served as librarian at New York Public Library (NYPL) and director of the Cleveland Public Library system
  • Married a librarian (!), Permelia Catherine Stevens, a children’s librarian for the NYPL system
  • Considered to be the first professionally trained and educated librarian to be appointed Librarian of Congress!
  • Oversaw the establishment of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for substantial and lasting contributions to literature for children
  • Implemented the construction of the James Madison Memorial Building (finished in 1980), which became the third Library of Congress building
  • Ushered the Library of Congress into the computer age, including establishing the Machine-Readable Cataloging (MARC) system, which is still in use today by library catalogers worldwide
  • Note:  It was during Mumford’s tenure that Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein sought help from Library of Congress clerks while beginning their investigation into the Watergate scandal.

12. Daniel J. Boorstin (1975–1987)

  • Rhodes Scholar, lawyer, and historian
  • Former director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of History and Technology (today known as the National Museum of American History)
  • His nomination was also controversial, with the ALA opposing his nomination because “however distinguished [his background] may be, [it] does not include demonstrated leadership and administrative qualities which constitute basic and essential characteristics necessary in the Librarian of Congress.”
  • The first Librarian of Congress to take the oath of office at a formal ceremony in the Library itself
  • Instrumental in the creation of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress
  • Upon his retirement, was made Librarian of Congress Emeritus

13. James H. Billington (1987–2015)

  • Rhodes Scholar and academic who taught history at Princeton and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
  • Oversaw the creation of a massive new Library of Congress online, including the American Memory site in 1990, which became The National Digital Library site in 1994
  • Reconstructed Thomas Jefferson’s original library (a majority of the volumes had been destroyed by a fire in 1851) — I was lucky to see this exhibit personally and up close in 2010!
  • Created the National Book Festival, founded in 2000 with Laura Bush, herself a former school and public librarian

David S. Mao (2015-2016, Acting)

  • Earned a master’s degree in library and information science from The Catholic University of America
  • Law librarian experience, including at a private law firm and the Georgetown University Law Library
  • Joined the Library of Congress in 2005, hired by the American Law Division in the Congressional Research Service (CRS). In 2010, he joined the Law Library of Congress as its first Deputy Law Librarian, and then became the 23rd Law Librarian of Congress in 2012. In 2015, then-Librarian of Congress James Billington appointed him to the Deputy Librarian of Congress office.
  • Under his brief tenure as Acting Librarian of Congress, he brought to the Library a copy of the 1215 Magna Carta for a historic 800th anniversary exhibition

After researching the backgrounds and tenures of the previous and current Librarians of Congress, I have come away with a profound respect — and pride, both as a librarian and as an American! — for their collective contributions. The Library of Congress today is a respected institution worldwide, and it took a lot of work and leadership to get there!

Sources:

About the Librarian.” Library of Congress, n.d.

History of the Library.” Library of Congress, n.d.

Previous Librarians of Congress.” Library of Congress, n.d.

Librarian of Congress” article from Wikipedia is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Library of Congress” article from Wikipedia is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Guest post: Tom Goodfellow

Just a reminder to everyone that I’m on vacation this week. Hope you enjoy the guest posts! Jen

Next up in our global guest post adventure is Tom Goodfellow, a film nerd and librarian at the University of Sydney, Australia. This post — all about reel libraries and dystopian futures — is derived from his Masters dissertation, where you can enjoy more of his witty insights into libraries and film. 


In the eye of the survivor

The world as you know it has ended. The countryside is a barren wasteland, resources are scarce, lawlessness is rampant and shadowy forces control whatever remains. First up, you’ll probably need some heavy duty weaponry to defend yourself from marauding wolves/cannibals/robots. Next, some clean water and tinned food are probably necessary, along with clothing and shelter.

And not forgetting that great essential, the public library.

This being Reel Librarians, obviously my main source for this assertion is the world of movies, which have provided us with a range of apocalyptic futures that feature a surprising number of libraries.

The Day After Tomorrow offers a particularly literal use of the library as a safe space. Following a climate change induced big freeze hoo-ha, a group of chilblained survivors hole up in New York Public Library. They preserve themselves by burning books, allowing for much ironic chat about which tomes should be first for the pyre. Sorry legal librarian readers, but by unanimous agreement the tax codes get it first.

Preservation, in fact, is the key theme here. In several movies, ruined libraries are visited by our square-jawed hero, and the lost secrets (re)discovered therein lead to ultimate victory.

In Zardoz, a copy of The Wizard of Oz inspires Sean Connery (resplendent in ponytail and bright red codpiece/suspenders combo) to discover the power behind the throne of his own society.

Inspiration is also crucial in Logan’s Run, in which Michael York and Jenny Agutter come across the crumbling Library of Congress, thereby understanding some of the culture that preceded them, i.e. 20th century America. The film is not subtle in conveying its agenda, featuring a discussion of who the individual portrayed in a portrait might be (it is Abraham Lincoln) and the eventual impalement of the main villain on a flagpole bearing the U.S. flag, both of which take place in the main reading room.

My favourite, though, is the incomparable Battlefield Earth (I watch it so you don’t have to). Once again the LoC is the setting, and an old text that we recognise as the Declaration of Independence is what spurs Barry Pepper on to defeat the alien critters that John Travolta has inflicted on us all. In a stroke of somewhat implausible good fortune, he also finds an instruction manual for building the nuclear bomb necessary for ridding the world of nefarious extra-terrestrials. As library/patron interactions go, this can probably be marked down as a success.

There is another strand of science fiction/library crossover movies in which a futuristic information source provides library-style information – think The Time Machine, Soylent Green or Rollerball. I could go on about these for a while, but I hear the reader crying (quoting Jane Austen):

You have delighted us long enough.

Of libraries and G-Men

I’ve been slowly reading my way through Kathleen Low’s book Casanova Was a Librarian: A Light-Hearted Look at the Profession, published by McFarland in 2007. (By the way, Casanova was only a librarian the final four years of his life, a job he took out of desperate need for money.) While reading about famous librarians throughout history, my husband had to endure lots of “I didn’t know that!” shout-outs. For example, I never knew that J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous iron fist behind the FBI, was at all associated with libraries. In fact, he worked for five years at the Library of Congress. (By the way, I got to visit our nation’s premier library at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Summer 2010, on a special behind-the-scenes tour for librarians. It was fabulous!)

Born in Washington D.C., Hoover got a job as a messenger at the Library of Congress in order to qualify for the federal work-study program, to help fund his way through George Washington University. He rose to the position of library cataloger and finally, clerk — but never to the level of librarian. After graduating with a master’s in law, he quit to pursue a position at the Department of Justice, and the rest, as they say, is history.

English: J. Edgar Hoover

J. Edgar Hoover – Image via Wikipedia

Several biographers, including Curt Gentry in J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and His Secrets, speculate that had Hoover stayed at the Library of Congress, he would have eventually become the head librarian. And the absence of a library science degree wouldn’t have been an issue. Of the 13 individuals — all men — who have held the Librarian of Congress title, only 3 have had prior experience and/or library education. (Sigh.)

But, of course, most librarian films do not mention library training or job qualifications (click here for a previous related post on that topic), and I personally include any library worker in researching reel librarians, as well.

So it looks like I’ll be putting the latest Clint Eastwood film, J. Edgar, on my list to watch. It has earned middling-to-respectable reviews, and lead star Leonardo DiCaprio has garnered Best Actor nominations for the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild awards. Will he get an Oscar nomination?

The Library of Congress can be glimpsed in the trailer below. And at least one review mentions a scene from the film set in the library, in which Hoover is “thrilled by the organization of the card catalog.” And who wouldn’t be? 😉

Also, you might be interested in The F.B.I. Story (1959), cinematically illustrating (or embellishing?) the history of the FBI. Jimmy Stewart plays G-Man John Michael “Chip” Hardesty, who marries public librarian Lucy Ann (Vera Miles).