Have you ever wanted to do research like a historian? Kids and adults can learn how at the Fred W. Smith National Library at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate in Washington, DC — thanks to the team led by Mark Santangelo, Mount Vernon’s chief librarian and archivist.
“Any student or adult who is interested in coming to the Library will get a behind-the-scenes look at our manuscript collection in our John and Adrienne Mars Rare Books Room,” explains Santangelo, pointing to boxes of letters — all early manuscripts from George Washington’s era — that are showcased in a recreation of the first president’s personal library.
Front and center is a beautiful bas-relief by Raymond Kaskey, a DC artist who created a rendering of George Washington’s bookplate for the Library. And to the right of that bas-relief, Santangelo adds, are 103 titles that belonged to George and Martha.
“Those are the original ones, and the rest of the books in the oval room are our attempts to recreate George Washington’s library through inventory lists and through additional research,” explains the chief librarian, who is in charge of developing the collection, managing staff, and providing access and services to facilitate and promote the collection’s use.
“While Washington may not have touched a particular volume, the collection includes the exact matching copy of the books that he owned. For us at Mount Vernon, it’s a wonderful opportunity to see his life through the lens of what he read, the subject matter he was interested in, and the many different languages that the books are printed in.”
For instance, Washington had a French volume of the “Voyages of Chastellux,” as well as a copy of “Don Quixote,” written in Spanish.
“Washington only spoke English, of course, so it’s a bit of a mystery as to why many foreign language texts wound up in his library,” Santangelo notes. “Were they gifts? Did he seek them out purposefully? These are questions that our team investigates as we strive to learn more about Washington’s reading habits.”
Students also get a taste of what it’s like to be a researcher and historian, he explains.
“It’s fantastic to welcome students to our library, and we don’t care at what age level they are,” Santangelo insists. “Our youngest student was an 8-year-old girl who worked on a book report with her father on George Washington; we think that’s terrific to be able to inspire at any age level, and we in fact love to have students come and utilize the collection.”
Whether it’s a digital version or using the primary sources, Santangelo shares the Library staff’s hope that anyone who wants to, can access the collection online.
“Anyone can come and do research, so long as their inquiry is a serious one,” he says. “The library is gated on either side, so researchers just need to fill out our form online or give us a call, and someone at the front desk will be delighted to get them in the door and put the research at their fingertips.”
What are some things that people want to research at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington?
Santangelo says he’s received many fascinating reference questions in the last few years, but the one he enjoyed the most came from an 8th grader.
“She wanted to know how many cherries fit on the back piazza at Mount Vernon, and I thought that was a very clever play on the old cherry tree story about George Washington,” shares Santangelo. “It turned out that a math teacher had asked the students to consider the problem, and what we needed to do was find an average dimension of a cherry as well as the dimensions of the piazza. Once we did that, we found the answer.”
What is the answer? “You’ll have to calculate that for yourself,” Santangelo chuckles. “But it goes to show that we are open to work on a variety of research projects. Of course, we are best-suited to get to the heart and soul of George Washington’s life, his career, and his legacies.”