Researching U.S. Metric History at the Library of Congress

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building

Having worked on this metric system project for over a year in addition to my full-time job as a communications and marketing specialist, I needed to get away for a while. Am visiting friends in D.C. but still decided to get in some work and it occurred to me to visit the Library of Congress to see what it might have available on our national metric system history.

Granted, I’ve already done extensive research in this area and have thousands and thousands of pages of material via books, newspaper and magazine articles, blog posts, etc. but that information only includes items entered into widely available online databases. Decided it might be worth my time to see what the Library of Congress had specifically. I had hoped the National Institute of Standards and Technology (our current keepers of the metric system) might have archived information on our metric past but was told that was not the case.

Researching at the Library of Congress

[Note: Items with “•” would apply to anyone who wants to research at the Library of Congress. FYI]

• First thing I found out is you have to register to even look at most of the materials. They take a photo and assign you a “Reader” number on a card that you have to use to get into various reading rooms and request information not on the shelves…and that’s the vast majority of it.

Underground passages

Navigating the underground passages between the Library’s main buildings

• For my purposes, I learned to navigate the underground passageways that link the three main buildings: the Jefferson (where most people go) as well as the Adams and the Madison buildings. The biggest advantage of learning how to use the tunnels: you don’t have to keep exiting one building and go through security again in another one. During the course of the day I ended up moving from building to building about five times so it made things much easier.

After an initial consultation, I was directed to the science department on the 5th floor of the Adams building.

I indicated to the research librarian that I was looking for information on the consumer side of metric adoption that would have begun around 1975 (when our last metrication bill was signed) to about 1982 (when the U.S. Metric Board was disbanded after President Reagan eliminated its funding).

I have lots of U.S. metric system information but I don’t have very much information in this area. Frankly, I’ve been curious about it since the few things I’d come across looked more like they were aimed at children rather than adults. Sure, it makes sense to have information for readers of all skill sets but writing everything as if the audiences are adults who barely understand the English language seemed like the wrong approach to me.

She very helpfully ended up giving me 46 pages of references that covered the time period under consideration and were more about metric adoption in general. That was okay by me. I set about going through the list to decide which things I wanted to see most.

• You can’t remove anything from the facility and printing costs 20 cents a page. Didn’t know it at the time but you can scan things from the printers onto a thumb drive but I didn’t happen to have one on me.

Under my current situation I thought I could take a look at some of the items and either try to buy them for my collection if they were critical and available (Amazon, Alibris, Abebooks and Powells are among some of my favorite sites for such things) or trot back to my local library and try to obtain them through interlibrary loan and spend some more time with them there, possibly even photographing them for later use as visuals within the documentary (keeping copyright in mind of course).

I dutifully filled out some of the “call slips” then looked for new items and submitted those in an effort to be efficient and not have everything hit me at once.

LC desk

Working at the Library of Congress

• When you request your materials you indicate your seat/table number that’s located on a small brass plate associated with each chair for delivery purposes.

• Got the strong impression that they prefer the requests be made online (through this page) but since I only had a paper listing that would be difficult so I dutifully filled out the paper requests.

Ultimately I discovered that about a year ago large amounts of material was moved offsite and most of the items I wanted were no longer in the building. A different and very helpful librarian helped me request the records be delivered on Monday, and with the early drop off time, since my plane leaves at 6 p.m. tomorrow.

Have more to report from this trip. Please stay tuned. Thanks.


2 thoughts on “Researching U.S. Metric History at the Library of Congress

  1. I really liked your post. We decided to look at your sight tonight as Jacob has a homework assignment to write about why the metric system is important. So we decided to look at your work as a guide for information! Hope you are enjoying your time off!

  2. Pingback: Kid in a U.S. Metric System History Candy Store | More Than A Mile Behind: America and the Metric System

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