By DONNA URSCHEL
The “Gateway to Knowledge” traveling exhibit, mounted in a specially designed 18-wheel truck, returned triumphant to the 2011 National Book Festival, its mission accomplished. During a year-long tour, the exhibit introduced thousands of people in small towns across America to the treasures and resources of the Library of Congress.
Parked near 7th Street at the festival, the exhibit drew a stream of visitors on Saturday and Sunday, generating the same enthusiastic response it found on the road.
“I’ve learned more here about the Library of Congress than I have in my 31 years as a D.C. resident,” one area denizen said.
“Gateway”—launched at the 2010 book festival—traveled to 90 small towns in 34 states and drew about 85,000 people.
Visitors called it “fascinating,” “awesome,” “uplifting” and “amazing” and left eager to check out the Library website or make a trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the Library.
“I never realized how accessible the Library’s archive is,” a visitor from Dover, Del., wrote in the guestbook. “This is an eye-opening exhibit.”
The exhibition featured facsimiles of top treasures—the 1507 Waldseemüller Map (the first document to use the word “America”); the 1455 Gutenberg Bible; the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence; and the 1962 drawings for the comic book that introduced Spider-Man to the world.
What interested visitors the most?
“Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft was the first thing guests wanted to see,” said Abigail Van Gelder, the exhibit’s docent. “But the hands-down favorite was Spider-Man and the Library’s comic-book collection—for adults as well as the kids.”
“Gateway” was made possible by the support of Abby and Emily Rapoport, and by members of the James Madison Council, the Library’s private-sector advisory group.
“This exhibit absolutely exceeded our expectations,” said Seth de Matties, exhibition director for the project in the Library’s Interpretive Programs Office. “It has been very special, because the results are so tangible. The response from the small towns and communities has been touching and meaningful.”
Josh Van Gelder and his wife, Abigail, drove “Gateway” around the country. When the couple pulled into town, they opened the trailer, which expanded to three times its road width. They greeted visitors and, as docents, helped educate them about the materials on display.
Josh and Abigail maintained the truck’s appearance, taking the 18-wheeler through truck washes and dusting, polishing and vacuuming the inside. In snowy weather, they chipped ice sheets off the flat exterior surfaces.
Abigail worked with local media to publicize the exhibit, conducting four to six interviews per week. The exhibit generated more than $2.3 million in media value for the Library.
Josh and Abigail drove 19,000 miles during the trip.
“We saw some really beautiful parts of the country,” Abigail said. “We truly enjoyed our frequent traversing of the Appalachian Mountains and encounters with the Atlantic Ocean. … We fell in love with Asheville, N.C. It was beautiful, with a great music scene and a unique city culture.”
In every town, Abigail said, they saw people excited to learn about the Library and grateful the exhibit traveled to their town.
At the festival, Karen Hess of Schenectady, N.Y., walked up to Abigail and said, “You came to Amsterdam, N.Y. I met you then. We were just so pleased the exhibit came to Amsterdam. It meant a lot.”
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Office of Communications.