In Conversation With… Ryan Reft at the Library of Congress

21 April 2017 | Pamela Linden

s200_ryan.reftThis month’s FWW Centenary Partnership ‘In Conversation With’ spoke with Ryan Reft, a historian of Modern America in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress.

The three Library of Congress buildings on Capitol Hill

 Tell us about your role.

I am responsible for overseeing the Manuscript Division’s collections related to 20th and 21st century law, journalism/domestic policy and in some instances, culture. I was part of the curatorial team for the Library of Congress World War I exhibit, “Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I.” The team also included Cheryl Regan (exhibition director), Sahr Conway Lanz (co-curator), Kim Curry, and Betsy Nahum-Miller from the Interpretive Programs Office (IPO) along with the invaluable work of the curators across the Library such as Megan Harris and Rachel Mears of the Veteran’s History Project (VHP).

Within the exhibit, we wanted to highlight VHP’s collections that document the experiences of men and women in the nation’s armed services during World War I such as Irving Greenwald, whose meticulously written diary describes his wartime experiences in compelling ways. In addition to our VHP collections, we’ve drawn from the wealth of the Library’s resources on the American experience in the Great War held by many other of the Library’s 21 divisions. Items in the “Echoes of the Great War” exhibition are drawn exclusivelyfrom across the Library’s various divisions and include Vojtӗch Preissig’s recruitment poster and Joseph Pennell’s apocalyptic “Lest Liberty Perish” a preparatory drawing for a poster promoting the sale of Liberty Loan War Bonds, both pieces are from the Prints and Photographs Division; the Woodrow Wilson Nobel Prize Peace Medal of 1919 from the Rare Book and Special Collections Division; and the dog tags of civil rights pioneer Charles Hamilton Houston from the Manuscript Division.  These examples represent only a fraction of the Library’s World War I collections and just a few of the more than 600 items that will be displayed before “Echoes of the Great War” ends in January 2019.

What are your organization’s plans for the centenary?

The Library of Congress is home to the world’s largest multi-format collection documenting the American experience in World War I. Through these collections, “Echoes of the Great War” is dedicated to detailing the diverse experiences of Americans during this period including immigrants, the native born, women, African Americans, and soldiers and medical personnel.  The goal is to effectively convey the stories of tens of millions of Americans on the home front and abroad at war overseas. In addition, over the exhibition’s 21 months, programming around the Library will explore various aspects of the war, ranging from the commemorative war gardens planted on the Library’s grounds to a law symposium focusing on the impact participation in the Great War had on United States civil liberties and citizenship, particularly in regard to the tension between the government’s obligation to protect individual freedoms while also ensuring national security. In May Bloomsbury Press, in association with the Library, will publish a companion book to the exhibition, America and the Great War: A Library of Congress Illustrated History.

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden speaks at an opening reception for the "Echoes of the Great War" exhibition, March 28, 2017. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden speaks at an opening reception for the “Echoes of the Great War” exhibition, March 28, 2017. Photo by Shawn Miller.

There will be many lectures, book talks, and a program of international films. The first six months of “Echoes of the Great War” also coincides with the final six months of “World War I: American Artists View the Great War” another Library exhibit which delves further into the contribution of America’s creative class to the war effort  and the various viewpoints adopted through their artistic renditions. An online version of the exhibition gives visitors unable to make the trip to Washington, D.C., the opportunity to examine the items on display.

The Library’s Educational Outreach Division has prepared lesson plans for teachers that let students explore the national debate about entering the war using Library of Congress primary sources. Finally, people who can only visit the Library online will have access to the Library’s digitized World War I resources via a special Great War portal on the Library’s main web page . The home page also provides access to the aforementioned online version of “Echoes of the Great War.”

What does the First World War Centenary Partnership mean to you?

The Library of Congress wants to engage in dialogue with cultural partners across the nation and around the globe. The First World War Centenary Partnership provides this opportunity and points to a future in which global historical events can be discussed in ways that help us understand their complexity through a network of institutional collections around the world, each presenting unique perspectives on world events.

A soldier pauses at the entrance to the Library of Congress exhibition 'Echoes of the Great War'

A soldier pauses at the entrance to the Library of Congress exhibition ‘Echoes of the Great War’

What do you want people to know about the First World War and why?

In the United States, as in other countries that became Great War combatants, no one experience of the First World War exists, but rather an array of experiences – immigrants, African Americans, women, soldiers at the front and the nurses, doctors, and medics that cared for them. When America entered the war in April 1917, tens of millions of men and women on the home front mobilized to actively join or to support the war effort. This massive endeavor accelerated the changing role of the federal government in the lives of citizens, helped American women achieve the vote, and brought into sharper focus the ongoing quest for African American civil rights. The war also brought the United States onto the world stage more prominently than ever before in this period that reshaped the world politically, economically, and geographically while setting into motion processes domestically that, for good and for ill, culminated over the next three decades particularly with America’s participation in World War II.

What does the centenary mean to you?

The 100th anniversary of America’s entrance into World War I allows Americans to compare the wartime experiences of their ancestors and predecessors with that of Europeans, Asians, and Africans, underscoring the global nature of the First World War and perhaps the larger existential interconnectedness of humanity beyond national borders. By doing so as citizens of the world we better understand how one event can inspire a diverse set of experiences and viewpoints and how such events can shape the direction of not only a nation or people but the world.