I had envisioned musty historic documents under glass -- maybe not the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, but other important and well-known individual documents. Not so! The Manuscript Division is where ALL the papers of prominent individuals are stored. (They have the files of presidents up through Madison; later presidents have their own libraries.)
We saw table after table covered with box after box of papers from Ron Zeigler, being sorted and cataloged, and another room with papers from Hollywood director Rouben Mamoulian. The latter was more interesting to me... it included several award statuettes, including a Saturn and a Dracula, and boxes with intriguing labels like "production stills, Cleopatra." Also boxes and boxes of Hollywood industry magazines, and a copy of the California Drivers' Manual... everything that had been in his files at the time of his death. Our guide explained that anything that is significant to the subject is kept (for example, they might keep a magazine if it has marginal notes) and the other stuff is offered to other institutions or destroyed. Processing a new collection (which usually arrives after the subject's death and may not be in the best of shape) can take years.
After everything's been gone through, duplicates and dross eliminated, and the remaining interesting stuff sorted into folders and the folders placed in boxes, the library prepares "finding aids" to help researchers find the stuff afterwards. Each "finding aid" is a folder containing a brief biographical sketch of the subject and a list of the information they have on him/her. But the detail is only down to the folder level... you can learn that the library has a folder of "correspondence with Joseph P. Blow, 1959-1963" but if you want to know any more about what's in there you have to request the folder and look in it yourself. (I don't know if you can get them through interlibrary loan... you probably have to come down to the library in person. The reading room is quite nice.)
The ranks and ranks of shelves on which the boxes and bound volumes of papers are stored are an interesting historical exhibit in themselves, showing the changes over the years in what's considered state-of-the-art in manuscript preservation. Some of the material is self-destructive, high-acid paper and the like, and these are carefully photocopied, though the budget for preservation and conservation is finite, of course.
The thing about the Library of Congress, our guide explained, is its scale... there's tens or hundreds of times more of everything here than anywhere else a librarian may have worked, and dealing with so much material requires different ways of thinking. And it keeps coming in, in ever-increasing amounts.
Looking over all this stuff helped me to understand why and how my own papers should be preserved for future historians (Lynne Thomas at NIU has requested mine, as she has for many other SF writers) and when I got home I started in on the process of sorting them into "keep," "send to NIU," "send the original and keep a copy," "send a copy and keep the original," and "why is this here anyway?" which I've been meaning to start on for almost two years. The work is going slowly, and it's mind-numbing, but it's kind of cool to look over my own history and realize how much progress I've made in the ten years or so I've been doing this writing thing. Finding the Writers of the Future Honorable Mention certificates, for example, was a nice surprise, and a reminder of how pleased I was to receive each one.
I've also been a little bit depressed at the thought that my best years may already be behind me. "Tale of the Golden Eagle" was written in 2001, after all, and I don't think I've written anything quite as good since. On the other hand, the lack of major successes in the last few years may just be due to the fact that I've spent much of that time working on novels, and since each novel submission can take months or years it may be quite a while before that work bears fruit. And "Titanium Mike" did get a Nebula nomination just last year.
I keep plugging away.