Kid in a U.S. Metric System History Candy Store

[Continued from column last week on researching at the Library of Congress]

Some of my Library of Congress resources

Some of my Library of Congress resources

Since my plane didn’t leave until 6 p.m. on Monday I ended up asking for some materials on our U.S. metric system history be collected from their storage location and delivered to the Adams building so I could take a look at them.

• The library gets two deliveries a day, one in the late morning and another in the afternoon (that was going to be too late for me). My great appreciation to those folks who helped me get the materials in the morning delivery.

• When you submit the electronic request (the only way you can get materials from off-site) you get an email notifying you the request for the publication has been received, another when it has left the storage facility and another when it arrives at your specified delivery location.

When I arrived, I was thrilled to see so much material and set about going through it and noting in which of three “bins” the items should reside: not useful for my purposes, ask my library to acquire so I could spend more time with them and, finally, seek to acquire for my collection.

Metric excitement and legislative aftermath
As I went through the books, some of which were self-published in an attempt to jump on the metric adoption bandwagon back in the 1970s, one thing that struck me was the excitement the authors had over the notion that the U.S. was finally adopting the metric system.

For instance, the introduction to the book Let’s Cook it Metric by Elizabeth Read, 1975, begins with:

For the past thirty years I have worked as a dietitian or nutritionist and have been amazed and appalled at the lack of knowledge of measurements of most people. Then I realized that our standard system of measurement is really a mish-mash of archaic terms based on parts of the human body. This year, 1975, will undoubtedly be the year that Congress will pass metric legislation.

Well, she was right about the legislation passing. Too bad it was too weak to really have propelled us forward and another 30 years later we’re still buying things in pounds, yards and gallons.

Expanding my research collection
Upon arriving home, I began looking for the publications I wanted to buy and since I had done most of my primary research almost a year ago, I did a cursory search on the term “metric system” on Amazon.

Slated for publication May 27, 2014

Slated for publication May 27, 2014

To my shock, I came across a yet-to-be-published book titled: Whatever Happened to the Metric System: How America Became the Last County on Earth to Keep Its Feet. The publication date is listed as May 27, 2014 and the author is John Bemelmans Marciano.

While Amazon lists him as the author and illustrator of quite of few the children’s books in the Madeline series, he has also written Anonyponymous: The Forgotten People Behind Everyday Words  and Toponymity: An Atlas of Words.

I have a call in to his publisher since I couldn’t find any other straightforward way to contact him. I’m very interested in what prompted him to work on this subject as well as what it might contain.

How much research is too much?
While I could research on this topic endlessly, what I’m most interested in is enough and correct information to inform the script for my documentary.

Due to my communications/research background, I even have an information gathering philosophy: I don’t need to see everything that was ever produced on my subject but enough so, as new information on the subject might come to light, nothing contradicts what I’ve asserted and hopefully only supports or expands upon it.

At least that’s what I’m aiming for. You never know…

Honored and archived
I also must say that I was extremely honored on Monday when I received word that this blog will be archived by the Library of Congress. The notification read in part:

To Whom It May Concern:

The United States Library of Congress has selected your website for inclusion in the Library’s historic collection of Science Blogs. We consider your website to be an important part of this collection and the historical record.

The Library of Congress preserves the Nation’s cultural artifacts and provides enduring access to them. The Library’s traditional functions, acquiring, cataloging, preserving and serving collection materials of historical importance to the Congress and the American people to foster education and scholarship, extend to digital materials, including websites.

My many thanks to Jennifer Harbster with the Library of Congress for taking the time to submit my blog for consideration. I truly appreciated her helping me with these efforts in multiple ways.

I will continue to do everything I can to make this blog interesting and useful.

Thank you for your kind attention,


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.