For the Love of Books and Research: Alexi Fehlman’s Summer at the Library of Congress

One of the Library’s courtyards, where employees or visitors can relax and eat their lunch outdoors

Every Friday at exactly 2:15 pm the interns of the European Reading Room all gather together and joyfully begin filling the table with glass plates, napkins, cups and an assortment of teas and pastries for the weekly teatime. By 2:30 pm the conference room is transformed into a kind of Salon, with readers, researchers and interns all gathering together to engage in lively conversation whose diverse topics can range from the brutal terror of Joseph Stalin’s purges to Albert Camus The Stranger, from the turbulence of the Protestant Reformation to the consequences of Brexit—there is always something to learn and to say at the European Reading Room when Friday comes around.

When I first began my internship at the Library of Congress European Division it was a bit overwhelming. On the first day, dressed in a suit and tie and battling the overwhelming summer humidity, I made my way to the Madison building to get my Reader Card. Although it was a bit of a struggle to find the card distributing office, it would be one of the easier parts of my journey that day. After receiving my Reader Card I attempted to use the tunnel system that connects all of the Library’s buildings together. The endless maze of hallways and corridors was extremely difficult to navigate for an amateur like me, but I eventually made it through and was only an hour late. It would have been much better to go through the front entrance of the Jefferson building and ask for directions (I highly recommend it!).

Despite the fact that I was late and drenched from the intense heat, Grant Harris (the Head of the European Reading Room) did not hold it against me, and was enthusiastic to show me to my desk and to guide me around the Library’s European archives. He walked me around and showed me the European Reading Room where scholars and researchers study. I was completely overwhelmed by the beauty and grandeur of the Room’s architecture. I saw the classical artwork that covers the walls depicting various figures and titans from Greek mythology, and the sea of painted flowers that are carved out of stone covering the whole ceiling.

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The beautiful ceiling in the European Reading Room

After that, Mr. Harris took me out to lunch and showed me around the library and introduced me to a great deal of people, all of who posses their own regional specialties and speak a great variety of languages.

During the first few weeks I tried to master all of the duties that I was expected to perform. I learned how to retrieve books that the readers requested from the “Control Room” and brought them up to the European Division; I learned how to use the microfilm machine and began sorting through reels of Latvian textbooks and newspapers; I was given training on how to effectively sit at the front desk and assist the readers; I found my way to the Map division of the Library and began cataloging Soviet Maps from the 1940’s. I was put in charge of the Slavic texts and periodicals that the European Reading room had, and became the person that organized and keeps track of everything Russian.

One of my favorite tasks was working with old Soviet Maps. I would go down to the Map Division of the Library and would be given maps of the Soviet Union that were used by CIA and the US army during WWII and after. I also worked with maps that were written in Russian language as well, and was given the task of transliterating the Russian text into Romanized Russian. Working with maps was in many ways a thrilling experience—as I was handing materials that once were considered classified and were not available to the public.

Sorting newly received Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian books and checking transliterations

As an intern in the European Reading Room my overall impression was a positive one. I learned a lot about the ins and outs of what it takes to become a library researcher, and was able to polish my Russian language abilities during the summer. I also made some friends and met a great variety of smart and interesting people, some of whom I will never forget. Overall I would recommend this internship to anyone who is planning to work in a library or wants a career as a researcher. Either way, whether you are an intern or a researcher at the European Reading Room, expect to drink a lot of tea while you are there!

Alexi Fehlman is a rising second-year in the MAERES program.