It's the moment before everything is revealed, or nothing is. You sit in a library or archives for the first time. You have stuffed your bag and coat in a locker, jiggled the lock (that never seems to work quite right), tried to remember everything you need (and is allowed) to avoid having to go back out to it.
The room is quiet. The materials await in a cart or on a table. Will they contain one of those surprises that give you chills up and down your spine?
I spent Friday afternoon at the Kiplinger Library at the Historical Society of Washington, DC, in the old Carnegie Library building on Mt. Vernon Square. It had closed for several months because mold was discovered in the building. (A part of it will become a new Apple Store, as done with Grand Central Station in New York.)
When I heard that the library had re-opened, I planned my mission.
The quest: Any information about Susan Ireland, a Washington widow. Ireland owned the building on Seventh Street NW where Clara Barton lived in the 1860s and from where she operated her Missing Soldiers Office. I am researching Susan for the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, which operates Clara's former home as a small museum.
The procedure at Kiplinger is to use an online catalogue to request materials and make an appointment. Based on this search, I didn't expect to unearth too much--but you never know. Before I arrived, the librarian pulled the materials, plus a few other things that she thought I might find relevant, and laid them out on a table for me. (Thank you, Jessica!)
Susan Ireland, born in Maryland in the last years of the 18th century, became wealthy in the 1850s when her younger brother, who had made his fortune out west, died in a shipwreck. (Another example of truth often stranger than fiction.) From the looks of it, she became a shrewd investor. Although she often had to involve her nephew or another male, she owned at least two buildings, was a partner in a private banking house, and lent out money.
The Historical Society collection included a promissory note detailing terms of a loan she made, with six repayments expected over the next two years. The borrower's well-located property on Pennsylvania Avenue served as collateral.
I also leafed through City Directories, which I had previously only seen online or as photocopies, and the large Hopkins maps of Washington. This map showed me the exact location of the borrower's property near the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 3rd Street.
You Never Know
The trip was enlightening but, no, I did not find anything super-amazing. That's okay. I had a first introduction to this new, for me, resource, which I know I will use again (especially with the several-year closure of the DC Public Library for renovation, which normally houses the local history collection.)
My biggest "ahah!" moment came in 2012 in the Quaker & Special Collections at Haverford College. After using microfilmed versions of Julia Wilbur's pocket diaries, I discovered a parallel set of diaries that she kept. Although they have since been re-organized, these are what they looked like when I opened the box.
Now, that gave me chills up and down my spine!