Transcript of video presentation by Kurt Maier
My name is Kurt Maier. I came to the Library of Congress in 1978.
My specialty here is German history, and also European history.
I catalog books in German, French, Dutch, Italian, and Spanish,
as the need arises. I'm also a tour guide at the Library of Congress
and I enjoy giving tours to the public.
When I first came to the Library, my interest in Library history
was sparked by Brian Willson. Brian Willson was the premier tour
guide of the Library. If you can imagine a British colonel with
a waxed mustache, wearing a tweed suit with a Windsor knot, speaking
beautiful Oxford English, that was Brian Willson. Of course, he
had a tremendous sense of humor.
The most exciting part of research for me in the Library of Congress
is going to the Manuscript
Division, or any of the other divisions, and opening up boxes
that have not been opened up for many years. I feel the same way
as Lord Carnarvon did when he first opened up the tomb of King
Tut and peered inside a chamber that hadn't been opened in several
thousand years. One of the famous sayings of Brian Willson was, "You
never know what you will find in the Library of Congress. You will
always make new discoveries."
The Freud collection is one of the most popular collections we
have here in the Library. Researchers come from all over the world
to study the papers of Sigmund Freud and his associates. One of
Freud's associates was Carl Koller, an M.D. Together, they experimented
on painkillers. Well, a few years ago, a German researcher came
to the Library to study the Freud collection. He found a sealed
envelope that had the handwriting of Freud on it, and also the
handwriting of Carl Koller. The researcher asked permission to
open up the envelope and discovered it contained cocaine, the residue
from the experiments on painkillers.
A curator in the Rare Book room once discovered a German Bible
printed in 1483. He found two pages sealed with wax and wondered
why? He had the pages unsealed and discovered a print of Bathsheba
bathing her feet in a basin. From a balcony above, there was King
David waving to her. Well, the clerics at that time in the Middle
Ages thought this was perhaps too erotic and too suggestive. So
that is why they sealed these two pages.
We have many oddities in the Library of Congress. For example,
there is a tiny rice kernel and a wheat grain that have inscriptions,
quotations, on them from the Koran. An admirer of the Library sent
these from Saudi Arabia. You can only view these of course with
a very strong magnifying glass.
I often take visitors to the Copyright
Office on the fourth floor of the Madison
Building. There, they have wonderful display cases with memorabilia
from copyright. One interesting exhibit is the first Coca-Cola
label from John Pemberton, the Atlanta druggist who developed
Coca-Cola in 1886. He sent the first Coca-Cola label to the Library
to be copyrighted. The label said in part what Coke was good
for. It was [quote] "a valuable brain tonic, and a cure for all
nervous affections--sick headache, neuralgia, hysteria, melancholy." So
even at that time, things went better with Coke!
In the American
Treasures exhibit, one of the most interesting sections is
the glass case containing the contents
of President Lincoln's pockets from the night of his assassination.
There is a pair of glasses held together by a piece of string.
The President didn't summon an optician to the White House, but
tied the glasses himself. That piece of string is still there
Also in that case is a bronze life mask of President Lincoln.
When visitors first see this, they think because the eyes are closed,
that it is a death mask. I tell them no, it is a life mask. It
was made shortly before his assassination. The entire face was
covered with plaster. Notice the hair on top of his head is all
smoothed out. You can't see any hair because a silk cover was put
on his head to keep out the plaster. How did President Lincoln
breathe with his entire face covered with plaster? Well, they put
two straws in his nostrils and that was how he was able to breathe.
I would also like to mention two of the top treasures we have
here at the Library. One is the Giant Bible of Mainz, which was
completed in the 1450s in the city of Mainz, Germany. I say city,
but it was a small town at that time. Also, about the same time,
Gutenberg printed his first Bible. But the man who wrote the Giant
Bible by hand, and Gutenberg who printed the first Bible, had no
knowledge of one another.
The Giant Bible
of Mainz in many parts is beautifully illuminated on the
border with flowers, trees, and birds. If you look very closely,
you can see pencil lines made by the writer that prevented him
from spilling over the margin. The text is in Latin, like the
Gutenberg Bible. Both Bibles are on vellum, or animal skin.
The Giant Bible of Mainz was donated to the Library by Lessing
Rosenwald. As a teenager, Rosenwald bought rare books in Philadelphia.
Later on, he donated all his rare books to the Library of Congress.
This is considered one of the most precious collections we have
Bible is an amazing development in western history. It's
the first time that a book was produced with metal type and a
printing press. Gutenberg had to develop metal type from a casting
mold. Each type was of the same width and height. He also had
to develop a printing press and got the idea from an agricultural
press that squeezed juice from apples. He developed an oil-based
ink that would stay on the metal type without smudging.
Gutenberg printed, we estimate, about two hundred Bibles on paper,
and about thirty-five on vellum, or animal skin. How many of these
Bibles still remain today after almost five hundred years? Forty-eight
We have, of course, very unusual people working in the Library.
But the most colorful in Library history I would say was Ainsworth
Spofford. He was appointed by President Lincoln, and lasted until
the time of President McKinley. Spofford was known for his photographic
memory. Once Jim Reed, who was at that time the Speaker of the
House, went up to him and said: "Dr. Spofford, some years ago I
saw you reading a biography of Charles James Fox, the British Prime
Minister. He was a notorious gambler wasn't he? Do you happen to
recall how much money he lost during his lifetime?" Spofford immediately
told him the sum and the page on which he found the information.
Spofford was very prolific. He published many anthologies of literature.
He also published histories of Washington, D.C.
After Spofford, the Librarian of Congress was John Russell Young.
He was the only Librarian who died in office.
After John Russell Young came Herbert Putnam. He held the post
for forty years, leaving in 1939. He kept a tight rein on the Library
of Congress. For example, he would call division chiefs to his
office for a conference, but Putnam would remain seated and all
the people had to stand around him. They were not allowed to take
any notes because he wanted them to memorize and concentrate on
what he said.
One anecdote I tell visitors when they come here is about Supreme
Court Justice John Marshall. At that time, the Library was housed
in the U.S. Capitol. John Marshall used to come to the Law Library
and fetch his own books. Well, one day he climbed up on a shelf
and a large book came falling down and hit him on the head. The
Supreme Court Justice was sprawled out on the floor. People came
running to help him, but he declined help and he said, "For many
years I have laid out the law in the Supreme Court, but this is
the first time I have been laid out by the law. I'm completely
There are many stories about the construction of the Jefferson
Building. There was great debate in Congress about putting this
massive building right across from the U.S. Capitol. One of the
legislators proposed raising the Capitol dome fifty feet in order
to make extra room for the Library. But this trial balloon was
soon shot down.
The years passed, the collections became too large. The books
were sitting on shelves, on stairways, in the basement and Congress
had to have a new building constructed for the Library. The result
was this magnificent Thomas
Forty-two artists were commissioned to do the work. It was one
of the rare instances in history of a beautiful artwork being created
by a committee. The small committee of prominent sculptors and
painters asked each artist to submit a rough sketch of what they
were going to do, and then gave them the freedom to do it. It was
all beautifully integrated.
One of the first things I tell people when they come here is that
the Library's Jefferson Building, this beautiful building with
the largest use of marble in Washington and perhaps in the United
States, was completed in 1897 with all its artworks, murals, and
bronze statues. It was completed for six and a half million dollars.
But the most surprising fact about this was that at the end of
the construction, the architect returned to Congress almost a quarter
of a million dollars of funds not used. This was probably the first
and last time this happened in government construction, perhaps
even in private construction.
When the elevators in the Jefferson Building were tested for the
first time, there was a test called the air cushion drop. To make
sure the elevators were safe, a bag of eggs was placed in them.
The elevators dropped and then came to a sudden stop. None of the
eggs were broken.
As a tour guide, I like to take people to the visitor's gallery
in the Library's Jefferson Building, and see the reaction of these
people as they look down from almost dome height, down to the readers'
desks. They are all delighted with this beautiful book palace we
have at the Library of Congress.
I once took on tour the grandson of Philip Martiny. Mr. Martiny
was the sculptor of the beautiful marble stairways which flank
the Great Hall, with the putti, or marble babies, on each side.
Each child represents a profession. We also have two hemispheres,
Europe and Asia, and then America and Africa.
There is another little anecdote about that. Martiny, when he
wanted to sculpt an American Indian child, had never seen an American
Indian child before. So what did he do? He went to a local Buffalo
Bill Wild-West show where he saw this Indian child and used the
child as a model.
Quite a few years ago, I met two brothers who were descendants
of Charles Bulfinch, one of the early architects of the Capitol.
So history always comes alive when I meet these people.
When the Library was founded in 1800, three Congressmen reported
to their constituents what was going on in Congress. Nowhere in
their report was the Library of Congress mentioned. It was just
a small room in the Capitol, with a collection of less than a thousand
books. But gradually this Library mushroomed, and today it has
become our oldest government-supported cultural institution.
I have never lost any of my enthusiasm for taking people around
the Library, or telling people about the Library of Congress .
. . even when I'm on vacation or out of town.