By REBECCA GATES-COON
Award-winning author and local historian Anthony Pitch described the delights of research at the Library of Congress during his delivery of the Library's 2004 Judith P. Austin Memorial Lecture on Nov. 9, 2004.
Pitch's infectious enthusiasm for the primary source materials so vital to the study of local history—letters, diaries, records of meetings, contemporary news reports and other items—both instructed and entertained his standing-room-only audience.
The Humanities and Social Sciences Division (HSS) of the Library inaugurated the Austin Memorial Lecture series in 1999 as a tribute to Judith Austin, who was the head of the Local History and Genealogy Reading Room for many years. Austin's 20 years of Library service included her May 1996 appointment as head of the Main Reading Room. She died on Aug. 2, 1997. Attending the Nov. 9 lecture were her daughters, Sara Austin and Jennifer Austin Luna.
Pitch began his lecture with a generous tribute to the essential work of archivists, curators and librarians, who serve as gatekeepers and guides to the riches of evidence from the past. His reverence for primary source materials was evident as he described a "breathtaking moment" in the Library's Rare Book and Special Collections Division when, with gloved hands, he held a book that had been taken from the U.S. Capitol as a souvenir by the British Admiral George Cockburn just as British troops were setting fire to the building.
Pitch regaled his listeners with tales of serendipitous discovery: a random note penned on the back of a document, which was missed by more hurried researchers; an important letter inadvertently stored in an unrelated bundle of documents; an unexpected bonanza of new stories about historical figures found in a writer's memoirs.
Pitch gave several examples from the work on his book "The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814," published in 1998 by the Naval Institute Press in Annapolis and chosen as a History Book Club selection. Pitch demonstrated his knack for bringing events of the past to life and, in the process, made a strong case for expanded publication of the primary source materials of American history.
Pitch expressed sympathy for researchers of future years who may find themselves relying on an unsightly mass of printed e-mail messages rather than the handwritten letters and journals that can yield wonderful insights about their authors. Gone will be the idiosyncratic handwriting and intriguing marginalia, Pitch noted. Gone, too, will be the extraneous but telling inclusions that researchers encounter in archival files, such as calling cards, invitations or receipts for purchases, that make working in archives and manuscript repositories such an adventure. Pitch expressed concern that the sense of immediacy—that tangible link between the researcher and his subject—could be lost.
Pitch concluded his lecture by describing his current research project, a book titled "They Have Killed Papa Dead! The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln," which he described as "another book about Lincoln's assassination." To judge from the audience's lively interest in unresolved questions concerning Lincoln's assassination, Pitch's newest project will also be well received by history enthusiasts.
Pitch is the author of a number of books, including biographies, travel handbooks and anecdotal guides to the U.S. Congress. He is an acclaimed speaker and tour guide for local history groups and history buffs who are intrigued by the foibles, coincidences and quotidian circumstances that shape great events in history. An earlier career in journalism took Pitch to England, Africa and Israel and included work as an Associated Press broadcast editor for Pennsylvania and senior writer for the books division of U.S. News & World Report. He lives in Potomac, Md.
Rebecca Gates-Coon is a reference librarian in the Humanities and Social Sciences Division.