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September 19, 2011

History on Wheels

Michael Kurtianyk

Approximately 50 people were at a special ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Urbana Regional Library last Friday. You might ask why this was special event. It has to do with an exhibit of items from the Library of Congress, thanks to Rep. Roscoe Bartlett. I was the host of the day’s events.


A specially-designed 18-wheel truck brought the exhibit to Urbana. The truck expanded on both sides so that, when fully opened, it was 90-feet long, 30-feet wide, and housed nearly a thousand square feet of exhibition space. More than 50 objects, images and audio-visual presentations were set up inside the truck.


The “Gateway to Knowledge” exhibition brought high-quality facsimiles of many top treasures and information about the millions of resources in the library’s collections to small towns and rural communities across America. Many throughout the country, and here in Frederick County, were not aware of their access to the all the information in this publicly-funded institution. The exhibit included programming, some especially for teachers and students.


Among the items in the exhibit were facsimiles of the 1455 Gutenberg Bible, which was my favorite. Also included was the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, in Thomas Jefferson’s own handwriting. Viewers were able to see the editing done by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.


There were also the original 1962 drawings for the comic book that introduced Spider-Man. The exhibit included a multimedia display and computer terminals. We were able to explore an introduction to the library and its buildings and learn about Thomas Jefferson's role in the development of the Library of Congress.


We learned specifically that by 1814 when the British burned the nation's Capitol and the Library of Congress, then former President Jefferson had acquired the largest personal collection of books in the United States. He offered to sell his library to Congress as a replacement for the collection destroyed by the British during that conflict. Congress purchased Mr. Jefferson's library for $23,950 in 1815.


Mr. Jefferson used a classification system consisting of Memory, Reason, and Imagination in his personal library. These three categories were replicated inside the exhibition in the Jefferson section.


We saw the handwritten manuscript to jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton’s “Frog-i-More Rag:” and Walt Whitman’s poem “Leaves of Grass.” There was also the 1507 Waldseemüller Map (the first document to use the word “America”).


Ultimately, the “Gateway to Knowledge” visited approximately 90 sites in states across the Midwest, South and East coast through September 2011. There are still two more stops on this tour: Sept. 20-21 Culpeper County Library, Culpeper, Virginia, and Sept. 24-25 National Book Festival, Washington.


The exhibit and its national tour were made possible by the generous support of the Rapoport family. Bernie and Audre Rapoport are founding members of the James Madison Council, the library’s private-sector advisory group, which serves as the Library of Congress' primary link to the business community.


The ribbon-cutting ceremony began with the Hood College Chamber Singers performing the Hymn for America and the Star-Spangled Banner. After I spoke, representatives for Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin offered a few words. I then introduced State Sen. Ron Young by saying: “Now, I want to let everyone know that, contrary to popular rumors, our next speaker was not at the signing of the Declaration of Independence.”


The Library of Congress, and libraries in general, are more than just buildings with books. They are places that house and reveal our place in the world. They offer access to historical records, maps, plans, photographs, letters, diaries, etc.


We must continue to be patrons of our libraries. We must continue to bring our children to these places of enlightenment called libraries.


The Library of Congress has been with us since 1800.


May it last another 211 years.


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