With the Society of Professional Journalists holding its annual convention in the nation’s capital in October, it’s a good time to take a look at what that town has to offer the working journalists.
After all, news is the lifeblood of D.C. and practically every topic that finds its way into print, over the air or onto the internet has a proponent, opponent or expert toiling away somewhere inside or at least near the Washington beltway.
Yes, much of the beneficence of this resource can be had online, by phone or Zoom, or even by mail from wherever your base of operation might be. But we all know delving deeply into nearly any topic can be accomplished much better in person. Plus, the human element — picking the brain of the research librarian, or connecting with a source — can help turn a standard story into a game changer.
THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Up on Capitol Hill, across the street from the Capitol itself, is the iconic Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Behind it is the ungainly Adams Building, which many a journalist has forgiven for its ugliness because of the wealth of resources in its interior. And that’s not all. Across Independence Avenue SE is the modern Madison Building, home of even more treasures.
Of course, the Library itself is a tremendous resource. The largest in the world, it claims nearly 175 million items in its catalog, according to Guinness World Records.
“Reading rooms” sounds dull? Not here. Not only are the 16 reading rooms fully stocked libraries of material on their topics, but they are staffed by experts.
In the Madison building, for example, in the Music/Performing Arts Reading Room you can meet Mark Horowitz, who handles collections including the papers of Leonard Bernstein, Oscar Hammerstein II, Neil Simon and Stephen Sondheim. It was Horowitz who handed me the original manuscript of “Porgy and Bess” (in George Gershwin’s own hand) when I was doing a piece on orchestrations.
The process for requesting special material, as well as a list of the reading rooms and their telephone numbers, can be found online. In addition, the Library has a division specifically tasked with research on public issues. The Congressional Research Service or CRS has five research divisions served by the Knowledge Services Group. The five? American Law. Domestic Social Policy. Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade. Government and Finance. Resources, Science and Industry.
Once upon a time, the CRS was the private reserve of members of Congress, their staffs and the committees of the House and Senate. CRS provided reports that were only available to the requester unless he or she released them. But in 2018 this all changed and the work of the CRS became available online to anyone with a computer (or even a smartphone).
Today, it would be foolish to undertake a project without opening crsreports.congress.gov and entering as many search terms as you can think of. (If you just push the “search” button without entering a term, you will get a list of 9,987 reports as of this writing.) Each entry is accompanied by a link to a .pdf copy of the latest version of the report. There is also a button allowing you to view all previous versions in case you need to know what it said at a particular point in time.
One amazing feature of the system is that it lists the CRS staff member who prepared the report. While, by law, CRS staff are only available to assist Congressional members, committees and staff, many of these experts can be found on social media. Of course, you can always try direct contact with CRS through their email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY OFFICE
Before we leave the Legislative Branch, let us not forget the GAO — which used to be the General Accounting Office before changing its name to more accurately describe what its staff of around 3,000 actually do. They evaluate the operations of federal programs, examine issues that do or may require government involvement, and seek out waste, fraud and abuse, identifying opportunities for Congress to reduce spending. Hence, the name change to Government Accountability Office.
Like CRS, the GAO’s reports are publicly available online. The collection goes back to the 1920s and now numbers over 56,000 reports. These include the names of those who produced them, which could lead to more contacts.
If the history of your issue is at issue, a visit may be in order to the National Archives, the repository of government records. It has two facilities in the D.C. metropolitan area.
If Congress has ever taken an interest in the topic you are working on, you may find a treasure trove in the Center for Legislative Archives in the National Archives Building on Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown Washington.
Just a little over 3 miles from the District Line in College Park, Maryland, is the National Archives Research Center. A ride on the shuttle that runs between the National Archives Building in downtown Washington and the College Park facility can be arranged.
At least in these COVID-19 days, if you need to see the documents in person, you will need to obtain a researcher identification card before you are allowed into the reading room. You can get one in person at 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, if you are researching something that actually involves a document that is in the Archive. Once you have the card, though, it is good for any visit on any topic.
For most research efforts, you will have to have a “virtual consultation appointment” before the actual visit is set up. While this may seem like a lot of government red tape, it actually cuts down on the number of times you might end up spending a morning or an afternoon in the reading room waiting for a document that isn’t actu ally available. I wasted a few mornings that way myself in the pre-COVID days when they weren’t as careful about checking availability prior to a visit.
If your need is for visuals to accompany your work, there are special consultations available for maps (email@example.com), photos (firstname.lastname@example.org) or moving images or sounds recordings (email@example.com). Of course, you don’t need to be working in Washington or even on a story of national significance to find the services of the National Archives of value. There are archival operations in 11 cities around the country and the Archives also operates the libraries of former presidents of the United States from Herbert Hoover to Barack Obama. (The Presidential Records Act won’t make the Trump papers public until five years after he left office.) Names and phone numbers of contacts can be found on the Archives’ website.
OTHER FEDERAL LIBRARIES
The Library of Congress isn’t the only federal library in the Washington area. If your project involves farming or food or anything agricultural, check out the National Agricultural Library. It offers a fabulous trove of treasures online (including a collection of all the department’s press releases back to 1940), but that’s nothing compared to the physical facility in Beltsville, Maryland. Check out nal.usda.gov.
Writing about the health care system or the pharmaceuticals industry? Perhaps the National Library of Medicine and its History of Medicine Reading Room in Bethesda, Maryland, will have re-opened for visits from the public by the time you are in Washington. Until then, the online collections are available and the staff can be very helpful (try 301-594-5983 or nlm.nih.gov).
I also hope the National Library of Education, located behind the Eisenhower Memorial between Independence Avenue and Maryland Avenue SW, will be open by the time you come to town. It is a fascinating collection dating back to just after the Civil War and now describes its collection as “including some 16,000 government reports on education dating back to 1870, education journals and monographs, and some 16,000 classroom textbooks on a variety of subjects.” Find out more at ies.ed.gov/ncee/projects/nle/.
Most federal departments and many of the agencies within them maintain libraries. The oldest departmental library, not surprisingly, is maintained by the oldest department: The Department of State. Thomas Jefferson, the first Secretary of State, established the library in 1789. Now, 233 years later, and named the Ralph J. Bunche Library, it holds some 350,000 volumes. Unfortunately, it is not open to the public, but it will loan items to other libraries. If you need this resource, you’ll have to work through your own library to make interlibrary loan requests.
Many journalists are working on topics that come under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security. Check out their publications library’s searchable database and then, if you need photos to illustrate your work, look to the media library with its 9,196 photos, videos and audio files available for downloading at hsdl.org/c/.
And there’s more. The Department of Commerce’s Commerce Research Library at 1401 Constitution Ave NW is open by appointment. The Department of Interior’s library is only open to employees but the librarians will respond to queries at library@ ios.doi.gov. And the Department of Housing and Urban Development maintains an extensive online library with 12 virtual bookshelves on topics within its jurisdiction (hud.gov/library).
Don’t even get me started on the topic of libraries of the Department of Defense, the military services, installations and organizations — it would be an entirely separate article. If you need to wade into that quagmire, try starting on Capitol Hill with the offices of members of committees with jurisdiction over military topics or perhaps start locally with your contacts at military installations or defense contractors in your home location and work your way up from their Public Information Officers. Good luck.
With its free admission and constant crowds, it’s easy to think of the Smithsonian’s museums as simply tourism attractions. But thanks to the largesse of James Smithson, we have access to, in the institution’s words, “the world’s largest museum, education and research complex.” Any entity with a mission “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge” is going to be a great place to look for mavens or material you need on your assignments.
A handy starting spot is the media contacts listing in the Smithsonian’s Newsroom. There you will find not only the names, phone numbers and email addresses of the principal spokespeople for the institution itself, but the same for a contact at each of its museums and facilities (all 15 of them!) and also locations like the Center for Astrophysics and the Environmental Research Center.
Government-operated or -funded sources are just the tip of the iceberg of the research treasures to be found in the Capital area. There are thousands of nonprofit organizations employing a huge number of specialists. There are an untold number of subject matter experts to be tapped within the staffs of trade and professional associations representing everything from doctors, dentists, blood donation operators, home care providers, architects, zoos and aquariums to railroads … the list is nearly endless.
Where to start? A firm called “Cause IQ” tracks them and finds the list actually isn’t endless; it has information on 3,553 of them with a searchable list. Check out causeiq.com/directory/trade-professional-associations-list/washington-arlington-alexandria-dc-va-md-wv-metro/.
Rather find them yourself? There’s the United States Chamber of Commerce with its 445 employees and the National Association of Manufacturers with its staff of 187. But don’t forget that almost every industry has an association here with staff specialists who make it their business to know the ins and outs of the corridors of power. Their stock in trade is information, albeit sometimes filtered in their organization’s favor.
Might states or local levels of governments be involved in the issue you are covering? Consider contacting The National Conference of State Legislatures, The National Association of Attorneys General or the United States Conference of Mayors.
Many individual states and cities have offices here to see to their interests in Congress and governmental departments. Some are part of the office of the governor of the state, some are affiliated with the legislature. None are too many Google searches away.
Finally, try contacting your own colleagues — journalists working in the nation’s capital who cover the areas of interest. Competition? Probably. But possible collaboration? Cooperation? Networking? Also probably.
Brad Hathaway’s stint as a journalist was actually a second career. He spent 30 years working for the legislative branch in Washington, first for members of Congress and then for the GAO. When he retired, he took up theater journalism, covering that beat in the greater Washington, Maryland and Virginia community, as well as Broadway, in newspapers, magazines and websites. He served as vice-chair of the American Theatre Critics Association where he now edits its weekly newsletter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured Image: The Library of Congress is home to nearly 175 million items and 16 reading rooms. (Photo by William Krumpelman/Getty Images)