Gateway to knowledge-- Library of Congress hits the road with mobile exhibit

By John Minnis

Legal News

The Library of Congress has gone mobile--thanks to work of a Taylor company.

MRA Experimental Tours & Equipment recently rolled out a new rolling exhibit--Library of Congress: Gateway to Knowledge, a 1,000-square-foot, double-bump-out semi-tractor trailer that expands to twice its road width.

Inside are facsimiles of some of the national library's many treasures among its 145 million-item collection. Such treasures include the 1507 Waldseemüller Map (the first document to use the word "America"); the 1455 Gutenberg Bible; the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, in Thomas Jefferson's hand with edits by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams; Walt Whitman's poem "Leaves of Grass"; and the original 1962 drawings for the comic book that introduced Spider-Man to the world.

The exhibition was the idea of philanthropists Abby and Emily Rapoport, granddaughters of Audre and Bernie Rapoport, founding members of the library's private-sector support organization, The James Madison Council. The young Rapoports donated $1 million to the library to make the Gateway to Knowledge exhibition possible and bring the library's riches to areas of the nation--particularly rural areas--that may not be aware of their access to the wealth of information in this publicly funded institution.

MRA underwent an "aggressive" bid process that included responding to a detailed RFP (request for proposal), said Harry Kurtz, president of the company.

It probably helped that MRA was already GSA (U.S. General Services Administration) approved and had already built several what it calls "Museums in Motion," including Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum, America I Am, Reflections: An American Funeral and Michigan Sports Hall of Fame. The company has also built many commercial brand trailers, including those for Rocawear, Motorola and Joe Fresh.

"The vast majority of people don't know about the Library of Congress," Kurtz said. "They want people to know this resource exists."

Formed by Congress in 1800, the Library of Congress is the nation's oldest federal cultural institution. Originally housed in the U.S. Capitol, the fledgling library collection was burned by the British in the War of 1812.

To help pay his mounting debts, former President Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his collection of 6,487 books to re-establish the Library of Congress. While some members questioned the need for so many books, Congress agreed in 1815 to purchase Jefferson's collection for $23,950. A fire on Christmas Eve in 1851 destroyed nearly two-thirds of Jefferson's volumes.

The Library of Congress mobile exhibit, like Jefferson's original Monticello library, is divided into three sections: "Memory, Reason and Imagination."

At a recent open house at MRA, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Robert J. Colombo Jr. had an opportunity to view the Library of Congress mobile exhibit. He especially liked the display on Andersonville, the Civil War prison camp in Georgia that he had once visited. He also enjoyed hearing Thomas Jefferson talk about the Declaration of Independence via one of the exhibit's several interactive video kiosks.

"This is very impressive," he said. "I'm glad I got to see it."

For the Web-savvy generation, the exhibit also has computer stations linked to the Library of Congress' website, www.loc.gov.

The drivers for the mobile exhibit double as trained docents. Travel teams consist two people, usually husband and wife. Josh and Abigail VanGelder are a typical team.

Josh was a social studies teacher, and Abigail was an events marketer. They met another driver/docent couple with the Lincoln exhibit at the 2008 GOP convention in Minneapolis. Not only was Josh an accredited teacher, he was also an experienced over-the-road trucker. He learned to drive a truck while serving in the Marine Corps.

Together, Josh and Abigail make a good team.

"It was a very quick transition," Josh said of their change in careers, "but we have never looked back."

The Library of Congress: Gateway to Knowledge is the VanGelders' third tour. Previously, they drove for the Reflections and Lincoln exhibits.

Befitting Josh VanGelder's background, the exhibit includes programming especially designed for teachers and students and provides relevant and engaging learning experiences for lifelong learners.

When he first got out of the service, Josh tried over-the-road trucking and hated it. The experience encouraged him to get an education. With MRA, Josh gets to use his teaching credentials and see the country beyond truck stops.

"When I first started over-the-road trucking, this is what I had in mind," he said. "It's a lifestyle. It really is."

Following its debut in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 25, the Library of Congress exhibit was scheduled for stops in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia and Ohio. The graphic-wrapped rig will be parked at various schools, libraries, community centers and other public venues.

According to MRA's Janet Torno, the Library of Congress exhibit will travel mostly to rural areas that do not have ready access to libraries and the Internet.

Mike Crosson, MRA's equivalent of a Disney "Imagineer" who built the Abraham Lincoln exhibit, was awed by the people he worked with at the Library of Congress.

"They are amazing to work with," he said. "The content of the Library of Congress is a reflection of the people who work there and vice-versa. They're the gold standard. It's mind boggling."

Kurtz complimented his designer and builder, saying, "He married experimental marketing with what they (the Library of Congress) are doing."

Referring to the Library of Congress personnel and no doubt his own people, the MRA president concluded, "It's not just the trailer. It's the staff as well."

Published: Tue, Oct 12, 2010

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