The Ever-Expanding Hispanic Reading Room at the Library of Congress, By Frank DiMaria

Arts and Media June 2016 PREMIUM
As the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution, the Library of Congress serves as the research arm of Congress. It’s the largest library in the world with millions of items including books, recordings, photographs, maps and manuscripts in its holdings.

 As the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution, the Library of Congress serves as the research arm of Congress. It’s the largest library in the world with millions of items including books, recordings, photographs, maps and manuscripts in its holdings. 

The Library of Congress comprises 12 reading rooms with none more important to Hispanic professors and those collecting information on Hispanic history and culture than the Hispanic Reading Room. Housed in the Jefferson Building, it serves as the primary access point for research relating to those parts of the world encompassing the geographical areas of the Caribbean, Latin America and Iberia as well as the indigenous cultures of those areas and peoples throughout the world historically influenced by Luso-Hispanic heritage. 

“The Library of Congress houses 12 million items relating to the Hispanic World. Of these 12 million items, two and a half million are books. We oversee these materials. We help people get to these materials such as maps, recordings, manuscripts, reference books and artifacts,” said Georgette Dorn, chief of the Hispanic Division at the Library of Congress. “We collect everything. It’s the best Hispanic collection in the world. There is so much to be proud of.”

The Hispanic Reading Room is the center for Hispanic studies at the Library of Congress and offers services in English, Spanish and Portuguese. About 250 researchers visit the reading room each month to view Hispanic materials of all kinds. 

When researchers interested in exploring the library’s holdings on Hispanic cultures arrive on the library’s campus, they first visit the Madison Building. There they are photographed and given an ID. The ID provides them access to all 12 of the library’s reading rooms, is valid for two years and is renewable infinitely. Then they make their way to the Jefferson Building. “They come to the Hispanic Reading room and state their case. We had a recent case of somebody from West Virginia, a professor who came looking for machismo in the works of a certain U.S.-Hispanic writer. So the reference librarian sat down with him at the computer,” Dorn said.

When researchers, or as Dorn calls them readers, request materials, it takes the reading room about one hour to secure those materials, provided they are in one of the three buildings on campus. If, however, they are stored off campus in the library’s remote location in Culpepper, Virginia, it can take up to 24 hours for the materials to arrive at the reading room.

To make the best use of their time, researchers who are planning to visit the reading room can request materials in advance through the library’s automated catalog on the Internet. “This is a new service we began offering last year,” Dorn said. 

Recording the Spoken Word 

Visiting the Hispanic Reading Room at the Library of Congress is one way to access Hispanic materials and perform research, but it’s not the only way. Today, researchers and the general population can listen to audio recordings of prominent Hispanic writers made available through the Library of Congress’s website.

In 1943, American poet Archibald MacLeish who was the Librarian of Congress at the time began recording the readings of poets and writers. During the process, someone came to be recorded. That recording made a significant impression on MacLeish. “A Lat-in-American poet came by and read a MacLeish poem translated into Spanish. MacLeish said ‘why not record Hispanic poets?’ So, they began recording Hispanic poets,” Dorn said. 

They started with those poets and writers in Spain and Latin America and expanded their efforts to include ones from Portugal, the Caribbean and Haiti. They even recorded U.S.

Hispanic poets who published their works in both English and Spanish. “In all those years we have collected over 700 readings by poets and writers from the greater Hispanic world,” Dorn said.

The collection is called The Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape at the Library of Congress, and it includes readings from Nobel Laureates Gabriel García Márquez, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz as well as renowned writers Jorge Amado, Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar.

The 700 recordings were recorded at the library’s recording laboratory and at other locations around Spain and Latin America. To date, writers from 32 countries are represented in this collection, which includes readings in Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, French, Náhuatl, Zapotec, Aymara, English and Dutch.

The website was launched on September 15 to coincide with U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera’s inaugural address. “This is the first time the U.S. has had a Hispanic poet Laureate, so the time was perfect. His speech is online also,” Dorn said.     

A Matter of Hispanic Pride

In 2014, the Hispanic Division worked with Congress to compile a directory of Hispanics who have served in the U.S. Congress from 1821 until 2012. “This is a 412 page book,” Dorn said. 
The book is called Hispanic Americans in Congress 1822–2012, and it contains extensive biographies, starting with that of Joseph Marion Hernández, a delegate from the Florida Territory who was the first Hispanic to serve in Congress. It also documents a number of historical captions detailing the evolution of the entire congressional representation. 

In addition to books, photos and maps the Library of Congress has 3-D items on display both at the library and online. The Hispanic Division acquired a collection of pre-Columbian artifacts in 2005, like figurines, and displays them in its Exploring the Early Americas Exhibit. The exhibit, which is on permanent display in the Jefferson Building, features selections from the more than 3,000 rare maps, documents, paintings, prints and artifacts that make up the Jay I. Kislak Collection at the Library of Congress. 
The exhibit provides insight into indigenous cultures, the drama of the encounters between Native Americans and European explorers and settlers and the pivotal changes caused by the meeting of the American and European worlds. It also includes two extraordinary maps by Martin Waldseemüller created in 1507 and 1516, which depict a world enlarged by the presence of the Western Hemisphere.

The Library of Congress is open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and it’s closed on weekends and federal holidays.

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