By Julie Arrighetti
For the Department of State’s Ralph J. Bunche Library, 2019 is a year of significant anniversaries. Founded in 1789, the Library has the distinction of being the oldest federal library and is proud to mark 230 years of continuous service to the men and women of the Department of State. Since 1997, the Library has had the honor of carrying the name of Dr. Ralph J. Bunche, a prominent African-American statesman who was born 115 years ago. The history of both Bunche and the Library that bears his name are filled with notable achievements. After graduating at the top of his class from the University of California, Los Angeles, Bunche became the first African-American to receive a doctorate in political science from Harvard University. He was the principal author of two chapters of the U.N. charter—one on trusteeship and another on non-self-governing territories. In 1950, Bunche was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize—the first African-American to win the award—for brokering an armistice between Israel and its Arab neighbors. An active participant in the American Civil Rights movement, he was serving as the U.N. under secretary general at the time of his death in 1971.
Bunche’s namesake has an impressive history as well. Perhaps the greatest claim to fame for the Library is the fact that it served as the original home of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The Library was established by the first secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, and charged with safekeeping all records, books and papers from the Continental Congress. During the War of 1812, as the British advanced on Washington, D.C., Secretary of State James Monroe directed the chief clerk of the Library to protect the Library’s collection, which was then located just west of the White House, where the Eisenhower Executive Office Building currently stands.
In addition to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, official records of the Continental Congress and original laws and statutes were hidden in hastily made linen bags, loaded onto carts and spirited to safety until the British retreated from Washington, D.C. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution remained in the custody of the Department of State Library until 1921, when they were transferred to the Library of Congress. Although those two important documents are no longer part of the Library’s collection, many fascinating documents that tell the history of the Department remain in the collection.
Today, the Library is a world-class research and information center that serves employees of the Department across the globe. Falling under the Bureau of Administration’s Office of Information Programs and Services, the Library has three main priorities: to facilitate rapid access to a vast collection of relevant online publications and databases; to provide expert research services encompassing public open sources and the Department’s records; and to purchase information products and services on behalf of the Department.
The Library houses more than 300,000 books, periodicals and documents on topics relevant to the conduct of diplomacy and U.S. foreign policy, the history of foreign relations and the professional development of the Department’s workforce. The Library’s small collection of rare books includes a 1493 copy of the “Nuremberg Chronicle” and “Histoire des Traites de Paix” signed by Thomas Jefferson. Department employees worldwide have a wealth of information at their fingertips through the Library’s OpenNet website, including ebooks, online journals, newspapers, reports and a number of special databases that provide statistics and analysis relevant to the Department’s mission. Department personnel are welcome to use the online resources, or they may request customized research services from the Library.
The Library consolidates the purchases of books, subscriptions and electronic information resources across multiple bureaus and posts, frequently achieving significant costs savings for the Department.
For several years, the Library has sponsored a popular speaker series. The program brings a wide range of experts to the Library in an effort to broaden the Department’s understanding of current and historic issues, particularly as they relate to the work of the Department and foreign affairs. The Library strives to offer a diverse range of ideas to stimulate discussion, provoke thought and provide a forum to allow Department personnel to convene and network. Last year, the Library hosted a wide variety of speakers, including Ambassador Prudence Bushnell who discussed her recent memoir “Terrorism, Betrayal and Resilience: My Story of the 1998 U.S. Embassy Bombings”; academic Stephen Kotkin who discussed the second volume of his in-depth biography of Joseph Stalin; and Liza Mundy who discussed “Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II,” which documents the role of Arlington Hall, the current home of the Foreign Service Institute, as the site where the women code breakers worked.
The Library has introduced several new services in recent months, aimed at facilitating access to its collection. The Library has always been able to send books from its collection to colleagues worldwide. A recent upgrade to the catalog now makes it easy to find an item in the collection and place a hold on it, so the Library team can pull it from the shelves and hold it for pickup in the Library or send it directly to current employees. For even greater convenience, the Library has introduced an ebook platform so Department employees can access ebooks online. While the Library is proud of its history, it looks toward the future to continue to provide the greatest diplomatic corps with the most relevant and timely information needed to fulfill the Department mission.
For any questions about the Library, its resources or services, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Julie Arrighetti is the chief librarian at the Ralph J. Bunche Library in the Department of State.