J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Studying Washington at the Fred W. Smith National Library

Yesterday’s new research library was the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon.

As my last dispatch reported, the D.A.R. Library in Washington is open to everyone, and access is surprisingly simple and easy. In contrast, the F.W.S.N.L.S.G.W. (I’m not sure what the short form of its name will turn out to be) is open to researchers only by appointment.

That said, I sent an email early in the morning and asked if I could look at a particular essay, and I received a warm reply welcoming me that afternoon. Everyone was very friendly.

Of course, that warm reply also had to explain how to find the Smith National Library from the entrance of Mount Vernon, get admitted through the locked gate, follow the path through the still-being-landscaped grounds, approach the building’s front entrance, and be admitted through that locked door. So I still have to give the D.A.R. Library more points for accessibility.

The Library for the Study of Washington offers visitors a type of locker I’d never seen before. There are no keys. Each has a numeric keypad which the researcher uses to establish his or her personal combination for the day before closing the door. And for added security, I learned at the end of my visit, the keypads have to be tapped in just the right way.

Both the D.A.R. and Mount Vernon libraries have open stacks for researchers once they’re admitted. But the Smith stacks are a lot smaller (for now, at least). The collection’s seed was the research materials that the Mount Vernon staff gathered as they improved the site and dealt with visitor questions. Now it’s being expanded into a broader research collection.

I didn’t have enough time to puzzle out how the shelves are arranged. I came across my report on Gen. George Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge one shelf below Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Age of Homespun, which was on the same shelf as Dick Cheney’s autobiography.

In addition to facilitating the study of Washington, the Fred W. Smith Library has two additional missions:
  • It’s trying to recreate Washington’s own personal library, known from inventories. Most of that collection is now at the Boston Athenaeum, and I doubt it’s moving anywhere. The Smith Library now has 103 books known to have been owned by Washington. That leaves only about 1,100 more titles to buy.
  • The building will eventually be the repository of the Papers of George Washington, currently being edited and published in an authoritative edition by the University of Virginia. (The content of published volumes is available at Founders Online.) Of course, those aren’t all the letters Washington ever wrote or received, but it will be a significant asset.  
While at Mount Vernon, I of course also visited Mount Vernon. The mansion and grounds remain impressive, and the recent additions—new outbuildings, the Museum, the Education Center (which I didn’t see)—have made it even more interesting. On this spring Tuesday, the place was swarming with school groups and families. Another visitor remarked to a docent about working on a busy day, and the docent replied, “Oh, this isn’t busy.” So expect to see a lot of other people.

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