Rebecca Rose: From History M.A. student to working at the Library of Congress

April 18, 2024

Author: Mel Sheehan

Rebecca Rose speaks with Mel Sheehan about her time as a student in the VCU History M.A. Program and her new role at the Library of Congress.

rebecca rose standing in front of the doors to the library of congress

Views expressed in this interview belong to the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Library of Congress.

Why did you choose VCU for your M.A.?

I was applying to masters programs and having to choose between them when COVID started. There were a few different programs I was looking at, and I was emailing back and forth with Dr. Raymond at VCU, and I just felt like, “oh my gosh, she’s so nice and so helpful.” She even put me in touch with students at VCU. It just made me feel that even though I couldn’t be on campus and meet professors, everyone was willing to help me make that decision and give me as much information as I needed. Best choice I ever made.  

What M.A. program did you do?

I did my master’s in history. It’s in history broadly, but I focused on early Virginia history. I also got to take classes in all sorts of things, which was just so much fun—like Russian history with Dr. Munro, intellectual history with Dr. Bendersky, and the Cold War with Dr. Ewing. My thesis was on a spy at Jamestown in the 17th century. 

Why did you choose history?

Going into undergrad I knew I was going to be a history major. I can’t help it, it just fascinates me. It’s what I am naturally interested in, what I gravitate towards. It wasn’t necessarily a calculated decision, like “History’s gonna be better for me than these other majors.” If I’m left to my own devices, this is what I’m interested in. 

What are your takeaways from the program?

Going back to how amazing the faculty is, I’m still in touch with professors from VCU. That feeling of connection and those connections themselves are a takeaway. In addition to learning from them as professors, VCU faculty have served as references and recommenders for me—I definitely owe where I am to the program and I’m so grateful. It’s actually Dr. Eastman who connected us to do this interview! When I was working on my thesis, my wonderful advisor Dr. Meacham also put me in touch with a colleague in the English department who could help me read period documents. Dr. Eckhardt is the faculty sponsor for the Superscripts, VCU’s student paleography (old handwriting) club. I still go to meetings and I encourage any history student at VCU who studies the early modern era to show up to a Superscripts meeting and learn to read what’s called “secretary hand.” Dr. Dickinson also stepped into the project without ever having met me and helped me make it to the finish line.

After graduating, you landed a job at the Library of Congress. Why did you choose to work there?

After teaching high school U.S. history for a year, I realized I hadn’t really given myself a chance to think about what else was out there. I thought, “I just really owe it to myself to take some time, see what else is out there, and see how I can use my skills in the wider world.” I just started applying to a bunch of jobs, and since I live in D.C. I was applying to a lot of federal jobs. I was drawn to working at the Library because I wanted a research job. I thought I wanted to work with the Congressional Research Service. They put together nonpartisan reports on various subjects for Congress. I thought that was perfect for a history major. I applied to every open job listing  at the Library and I got an interview for my current job not really knowing what it was. 

What is it like working there?

I work in Duplication Services, which is on the business side of the library. We help customers who want a copy of a document or image that we have in the Library’s collection. These customers are not able to come into the library and look it up themselves for various reasons. For example, I just filled an order for a customer in Japan, and for that customer it was not feasible for them to come. Sometimes customers want a reproduction of an image for an exhibit or other project. What’s really cool about my job is that I get kind of a bird’s eye view of everything. I get to go collect incredible material from the Library’s different subject-matter reading rooms and learn about the collections in each of these places. It’s also really exciting to be working on Capitol Hill. The Library is three buildings; they’re all connected by underground tunnels to each other and to Congress.

How do you take what you learned from your M.A. and apply it to your job?

Having research skills is definitely helpful. It wasn’t a job requirement, but having the lay of the land historically and being able to understand the context for what a customer has requested helps me. Historical orientation and having a love of primary sources is helpful. That’s all that I do all day—look at cool primary sources— it’s amazing. Supreme Court justices’ papers, vintage Lego ads, 18th century books about pirates, even items from the Library’s Third Reich collection, which are books that were confiscated from the Nazis and shipped to the U.S. after WWII.

If a student wanted to be in a similar line of work, would you recommend the program you did, or a different one?

If you’re going to get your master’s in history, you should do it because you love it and you should be willing to be creative about how you’re going to use it in your career. Don’t do it in an instrumental way, because you think doing this program is going to be the ticket that gets you into whatever career field. Do it because you really want to learn and you are really passionate about history. 

What advice would you give to other M.A. students, or undergrad students?

If anyone is looking for this kind of career track, federal job applications take forever. I applied for this job in May 2023 and didn’t start working until November 2023. It takes a really long time. As with most job applications, the whole process can be incredibly disheartening. You get rejected for reasons you can’t possibly fathom. You just gotta keep cranking the job applications out. Make good connections while you’re at VCU. Take advantage of being a student. Take a look at what internships are available. Reach out to people who work in places you want to work or do things you want to do; just ask to hear about what their path has been.