First Person Field Notes: Journey into a city where ‘everything matters’

It’s hard to imagine a city with as much history – as much historical influence on the world we live in today – than Washington, D.C. Okay, maybe Rome, Athens, and Cairo come close.

Still, to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, to stand inside the Library of Congress, to sit in the same bar stools as FDR and JFK, and to visit the place of Lincoln’s Assassination, well, there may not be a better place for a field trip than the District of Colombia.

From April 18-22, 50 University of Western Ontario Master of Library and Information Science students and one journalism grad (myself) traveled to that great city along the Potomac for five days of history, fun and a little bit of Southern charm.

And, because it was an educational trip, we kind of had to learn a little bit.

At the Library of Congress, on our first day, the group was allowed a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a D.C. librarian, and we received presentations on reference services, building digital collections and archival description – like a college football player getting a pep talk from Peyton Manning.

For myself, it was an education into the business, but for everyone else I can only imagine it was inspiring and motivational. I can’t imagine a place where archives and collections matter more – other than at North Campus Building, of course – than Washington. After all, the Library of Congress houses 100 million documents, 26 million books and 36 million manuscripts, not to mention the remaining personal collection from Thomas Jefferson (another guy that just happened to live at 1600 Pennsylvania).

On our last full day in D.C., the group visited the Smithsonian and had a presentation from the director of the Smithsonian libraries. We split into smaller groups to tour some of the Smithsonian’s specialized libraries, where we saw the city’s vast collection of rare books and raw materials.

Some members of the group also received a special tour of the Smithsonian Archives to learn about the unique challenges of preserving their vast collection.

Simply put, the history of America’s First City and the intimidation of being in a place that makes you feel so insignificant and unimportant is, well, there’s no way to describe it.

Immediately on arrival, it became clear that the city had a lot to offer, and that almost everyone was quickly falling for it. Every block seems to have its own monument and everywhere you go has its own story – many of the founding of that nation to the south of us.

At Arlington National Cemetery, crosses and gravestones stretch for miles across perfectly cut grass, some of which include the Unknown Soldier and almost all the Kennedys – Jack, Bobby, Jacquie and Teddy – as well as the home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and a host of war memorials.

Along the National Mall, tourists have their choice of 14 Smithsonian museums, including the museums of Natural History, American History and Air and Space. They’ve got everything from a T-Rex and stuffed tigers to the Spirit of St. Louis and Abe Lincoln’s hat.

The entire city – an expansive city built outward not upward – is made of European Renaissance architecture, and there are several buildings that could make you believe you’re somewhere across the Atlantic.  At one end of the National Mall is the Capitol Building, which takes your breath away, and at the other is the Washington Monument. Further down, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, is the Lincoln Memorial – a sight so moving it’s hard to put into words (so, I’m not going to try).

And, of course, at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., is the White House. A pretty important guy lives there.

There were other spots, as well, that many people took to seeing on their own. Almost everyone wandered around the streets of Georgetown, an elite residential and shopping area, and the city’s various universities. Others went to the Newseum, which is the United States’ largest journalism museum and one of the most unique sites I’ve ever been in. There’s also the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, located along the National Mall, which was moving and emotional.

In all, the history is what we saw, but, as an outsider who joined a bunch of kids from a program I really know nothing about, I couldn’t have been happier with the hospitality I found. I imagined everyone knew each other and that I’d have to be the Lone Ranger on their journey across The States. But I couldn’t have felt more welcome.

Really, everyone came together and – from what I saw – found a nice mix between being able to “do their own thing” and participating as a group.

Everything in the city matters; everything is there for a reason. Much like Hollywood was created for the movie business and Las Vegas was created for “personal business,” D.C. was created to be the political and historical focal point of the United States.

As just one person on a great trip, I can only say how much I enjoyed it and how much I’d like to thank everyone for making me feel so welcome. On top of that, everyone on board the bus to D.C. would like to thank Jamien Sandhu and Allison Daigle for all their planning, preparation and initiative to get this trip underway. Without your work, it couldn’t have happened.


Kolby Solinsky is a journalism student at The University of Western Ontario.