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Inside the Library with Kurt Maier

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 today.

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 today.

The Gutenberg 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 Bibles.

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 floored!"

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 Jefferson Building.

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.

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  July 20, 2010
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