BIO Bits 1

What a whirlwind weekend in our nation’s capital, mostly centered around the 2nd Compleat (their spelling, not mine) Biographers Conference, sponsored by Biographers International Organization (BIO). After the great evening on Thursday (chronicled here), I was up early on Friday for a pre-conference day of events at the Library of Congress. I’d never visited it on previous trips to DC, and it was a treat. The building itself is stunning, but what’s more impressive are the treasures inside.

OK, before proceeding, a caveat: The events described herein are not going to be too exciting for most people. Let’s face it, reading biographies, I realize, is not everyone’s cup of tea. Imagine the level of intellectual nerdiness you must rise to when researching and writing one. I, of course, am as nerdy as anyone else who attended. But from another perspective, you could say this group of 250 or so people are merely extremely curious people, and finding the story in another person’s life, famous or less so, captivates them. To a person, the biographers get particularly caught up in the research: the digging, the making connections between people and events that are inevitably part of the process, the search for new clues and sources when a roadblock seems to end one path of inquiry.

The one question I heard over and over again this weekend: “Who’s your subject?” Which  leads to the responder unleashing the passion that carries them through years of research and writing. Though not me. One attendee was shocked when I said I wrote a 20,000-word bio of Reagan in 6 weeks. Well, obviously, I said, I don’t spend months in the archives or conducting personal interviews, as so many of my fellow biographers do.  As I’ve confessed many times before, I am a hack. But one who is still intrigued by the process of finding the narrative, themes, through lines, that defines a life. During one of the panels, I scribbled this in my notes: “Every life has a story – is a story – that is both made up of the small and large/profound and mundane, and transcends those individual events, pieces.”

OK,  maybe not so particularly deep an observation. But a similar notion, I think, propels us biographers to find the essence of the people we write about.

And now, back to our recounting of Friday’s events:

We spent the morning listening to Thomas Mann, the head research librarian, who’s written the book on library research. Literally: The Oxford Guide to Library Research, sure to be on your Christmas wish list. He gave us hints for searching the LC catalog and various databases, all of which are available at the library, though most are not at your local library. His talk and the subsequent smaller group sessions at other  parts of the library (photos and images, newspapers and periodicals) left me amazed at the resources we, all Americans, have here at the largest library in the world. The collection has more than 140 million items, including either 22 or 33 million books (depending on the counting system used), 14 million photos and images, ¾ million reels of microfilmed newspapers, and a full set of doctoral dissertations (did not get the # in my notes). And there may even be a book or two of mine: For copyright purposes, the library receives two copies of every book published in the US, though Mann admitted not all of them are retained. So my classic book on how to become a travel agent – probably not on the shelves.

Unfortunately, much of the material has not been digitized, though a good bit has, as you can see here and here. But to really delve into a subject, you have to come to the library and seek out the knowledgeable and eager-to-help librarians. I long for the day when I have the time and money to do just that.

I skipped out of my last session at the library so I could prepare for the evening’s event – cocktails at the home of a Very Famous Popular Biographer. The person, as you might suspect, has a gorgeous Georgetown home (not that I got a private tour or anything. But it’s old, large, and tastefully decorated). Our host graciously posed for a pic that one of the woman on my panel (writing the Young Adult [YA] biography) asked for, holding a tea cup that might have been filled with tea, though the thought flitted through my head that maybe it contained something a little stronger than what we guests were being served (a very tasty vodka-lemonade-fresh mint-and-basil concoction). The apps looked fine too, though little was vegan friendly, something that came up often over the weekend. Thank god the city itself has plenty of vegan options.

At the soiree, I had a chance to chat with a few people on a warm Friday evening, then was lucky enough to get a car ride back near my hotel. I had taken the bus there, and I would reckon I was the only person attending who traveled that way. Yes, I am too cheap for a cab and was able to avoid using one the whole trip, thanks to the convenient location of my hotel and the fairly efficient transportation system.

I made it an early night, knowing the actual conference would make for a long day. More on that later.

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~ by mburgan on May 23, 2011.

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