A Visit to the Rayburn Building

The Walter Sidney Miller Family Musicians. Digitized with NEH funds.

Two weeks ago I went to DC to have various meetings related to my new position at George Washington University as Director of the Resilient Networks project (about which more later). In early February, knowing I would be in DC for that purpose in that first week of March, I emailed my House representative, Congressman Morgan Griffith, for an appointment to express to him my support of the NEH. He makes it quite easy, which I appreciated – he had a form on his website for requesting an appointment, and his staff responded within a few days to set up a meeting for me in DC with the Congressman’s Legislative Correspondent, Elliott Silverman. On the advice of Virginia Tech’s Professor Tom Ewing, before I made the appointment I called Virginia Tech’s Office of Government Relations to let them know about my planned visit; they were having a very busy week that week, what with the travel ban, but they too responded quickly and told me that as long as I was going as a private citizen and not as an official representative of Virginia Tech, they didn’t need to be involved.

There are things I would trade the NEH for. I personally would give up the NEH (and maybe even the NEA, and the IMLS, and the Wilson Center, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) for universal health care, for entrenched federal protection of civil liberties for LGBTQ citizens, for policies that welcome refugees and immigrants after an appropriate amount of vetting, for anything that keeps Black people from being killed by the police, even for an infrastructure bill that created millions of stable, good-paying jobs to build and repair things (as long as the proposed infrastructure to be built is not something as useless and offensive as That Wall). But I decided to advocate for the NEH not because it’s the most important issue facing us in these weird days, but because it’s the one I know the most about. And that conceit of “trading” one federal program for another is just a fantasy: no one is offering to make any such trade, and if anyone were to offer, I wouldn’t believe them—I’d be certain that I’d give up the NEH only to find that universal healthcare never materialized. Similarly, I think that those who propose to eliminate the NEH don’t do so in order to free up the funds for other purposes: it’s primarily a matter of theory, or principle (a kinder word than “ideology”). Those principles hold that the federal government shouldn’t fund the arts and humanities and that the federal government should be smaller.

I don’t know whether strongly held principles can be dislodged by real-life cases: I suspect not, or rarely, or only over a great deal of time. Suffice it to say that my principles hold that the federal government should definitely devote a little money to supporting the arts and humanities and libraries and museums in addition to all the other things we ask it to support. It makes us seem to be a better nation globally, and I think it actually makes us a better nation. I’m also all for a more streamlined federal government, but if you’re going to ensmallen (a perfectly cromulent word) the US government in any effective way, you should probably start with the biggest parts of it and not the smallest ones. When you’re cleaning out the garage, you should start by getting rid of the broken car and the broken dishwasher and the broken bicycle and the broken leaf blower rather than getting rid of four toggle bolts.

In any case. On Wednesday, March 1st, I left an hour-long 1pm call with Toniesha Taylor at Prairie View A&M (one of the partners on the Resilient Networks project) a little early to run and grab a cab across town from GWU’s Gelman Library over to the Rayburn Building.

Even though I had been careful to book the meeting at 2:15pm instead of 2pm, I was still running a little late (AS USUAL), so I sent an email to that effect with my phone from the cab. It’s dreadful etiquette to be late, I know, but I wasn’t really THAT late, and I relied on the kindness and humanity of the Congressman’s office to be understanding. Also, I figured if anything, I was only hurting myself (and possibly the NEH), since I knew I’d only have about 15 minutes to make my case. The cab ran into complete gridlock in front of the building itself: seems like a lot of people were headed to the Rayburn Building. At about 2:14pm I was out of the cab and in front of the building, and I was grateful that the line through the metal detector wasn’t very long at all and was moving briskly.

I followed the signs to room 2002, which didn’t look at all like the correct room. About eight or ten young staffers were sitting at desks in a kind of bullpen, and I caught the eye of one who was free who was eating something and had to finish chewing and swallowing before she apologized for keeping me waiting (which of course I didn’t mind at all, though I was still feeling anxious and rushed because I was late). I explained I was looking for Congressman Griffith’s Office, and they looked blankly at each other, at which point I rechecked my phone and realized that I was looking for room 2202 instead and was at that moment intruding upon the time (and lunch) of folks in the Liaison Office for the Navy. They helpfully pointed me in the right direction, so I finally bumbled my bumbling way up to the correct room via a beautiful marble-treaded stairway and made my presence known.

This looked more like a congressman’s office, with a pair of reception desks in a kind of foyer, manned by a couple of young men in suits. (So many of the people I met in the Rayburn building seemed so young: mid-twenties or so. I remember that phenomenon from living in DC before. Those who govern are often in their mid-sixties at least, but their staffs are always barely out of college, seems like. The people in their thirties and forties and fifties don’t even seem to work in government.) They were chill about my tardiness, bless them, and I waited for just a couple of minutes before Mr. Silverman (also young) came out to meet me. We shook hands and exchanged business cards, and then he took me into a big, very Congressional-looking office, with that typical DC décor of silk curtains and carpet and bookcases and Colonial furniture. There was a bag of Fritos on the Colonial couch, which he apologized for.

And then I went into my spiel, which is encapsulated in this one-page document, which I printed out and gave to Mr. Silverman:

The first thing I mentioned was that the NEH has given Virginia’s Ninth District nearly two million dollars in direct funding in the last twenty years. Mr. Silverman looked visibly surprised at that, which I took to be a good sign. Not all of it has gone to large research universities like Virginia Tech, either, and much of it has gone to projects that, I dare swear, even conservatives would approve of. Congressman Griffith has most recently been working hard to retain a provision in the Affordable Care Act (which otherwise he is keen to repeal) that benefits coal miners, making it unnecessary for them to submit extensive and burdensome documentation in support of claims related to black lung, which certainly seems like a provision I can get behind. Knowing of Congressman Griffith’s support for coal miners, I made sure to mention the most recently funded NEH project in the district, which is a project at Radford University to preserve historic images in their collection of coal miners and their culture.

19th-century Stock Certificate for the Virginia & Tennessee Rail Road Company. Digitized with NEH funds.

I’m afraid, but also rather glad, that very early on in my fifteen-minute meeting at the Rayburn Building I stopped advocating for the NEH and instead started talking about the three high-resolution color images I had printed out and attached to the one-pager. All three were historic images brought in to the Christiansburg Public Library last year for digitization as part of the Montgomery County Memory project initiated by Samantha Parish and funded by the NEH as part of its Common Heritage program. I mean, a survey map of the region from 1795! How cool is that! I would never have expected someone to bring in something like that. Another of the three was the 1930s or 1940s photograph of a family of musicians that heads this post, and the third was a nineteenth-century stock certificate for the Virginia Tennessee Rail Road Company.

1795 Land Survey of Poor Mountain, Elliston, VA. Digitized with NEH funds.

Another encouraging sign from Mr. Silverman was that he took special note of that survey map; he mentioned that it might well be from the very area where Congressman Griffith grew up. He also closed our meeting by mentioning that he himself had studied the humanities: his LinkedIn profile reveals that he minored in U.S. History at Southern Methodist University.

None of those small signs of encouragement necessarily mean that Congressman Griffith will refuse to zero out the budget of the NEH, NEA, IMLS and similar agencies, of course. But his office was more than willing to hear me out on the subject, which I appreciated. I’ve also heard from a few colleagues who participated in Humanities Advocacy Day earlier this week that there may well be broad bipartisan support for retaining these agencies, and I take comfort from the knowledge that only a few months ago Dr. Carla Hayden was confirmed as Librarian of Congress with bipartisan support.

Many individuals and organizations have been writing advocacy guides and statements of support this week. Here’s a select list:

• “To Protect the Arts and Humanities, Go Local,” by Jason Rhody
• “Federal Cuts are About You and Me,” by Sheila Brennan
• “Statement on US Administration Proposal,” by Digital Library Federation Leadership
• Anything by the National Humanities Alliance

In such a climate of turmoil for the humanities, it seems arrogant to suppose that anyone will care that I have a new position, but, yes, I have a new position, which is why I was in DC to begin with. I am directing the Resilient Networks project, a Mellon-funded project to create a support network for the digital humanities with four institutional partners: George Washington University (where I’m now an employee in the Libraries), Davidson College, Rice University, and Prairie View A&M. The project is funded by the Mellon Foundation, so my new position is in no danger of disappearing, unlike some others I might name. I’ll add here that my reasons for leaving Virginia Tech were primarily personal (mainly geographical): I have nothing but respect for the direction Dean Tyler Walters is taking the library, and I’m sorry to leave some of the projects I had percolating there, not least my support role on Dr. Ed Gitre’s “American Soldier” project to create an online full-text database where students and members of the public can read and transcribe tens of thousands of descriptions by WWII soldiers of their military and wartime experiences – a project for which we collaborated on a proposal to the NEH’s Humanities Collections and Reference Resources program. I think it was a marvelous proposal, fully deserving of funding. I hope the country agrees with me.

The National Endowment for the Humanities. A good thing.