Library of Congress Researcher Co-Authored Several Books

Helen Dalrymple, who made a career at the Library of Congress, was in many ways considered the caretaker of its institutional memory.
Helen Dalrymple, who made a career at the Library of Congress, was in many ways considered the caretaker of its institutional memory. (Family Photo)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 22, 2009

Helen W. Dalrymple, 68, a Library of Congress researcher and spokeswoman, who was the co-author of several books about the library and was a leading authority on its holdings, history and mission, died Feb. 13 at Capital Hospice in Arlington. She had complications from brain cancer.

Mrs. Dalrymple joined the library's Congressional Research Service in 1967 and quickly distinguished herself as a researcher and analyst, preparing background papers for Congress on everything from presidential appointments to the D.C. government. She was a liaison between Congress and the library and spent two years as acting director of the library's planning office during a major reorganization in the 1970s.

From 1985 until her retirement in 2005, Mrs. Dalrymple worked in the library's public affairs office and was its chief spokeswoman. She wrote for in-house publications, prepared detailed descriptions of new acquisitions and often advised Librarian of Congress James Billington on interviews and speeches. She was considered, in many ways, the caretaker of the library's institutional memory.

"She was quite simply one of the nicest and noblest public servants I have had the privilege of working with," Billington said. "I learned about the Library of Congress from her books before I was librarian." Throughout the 1970s, Mrs. Dalrymple worked closely with Charles A. Goodrum, who was assistant director of the Congressional Research Service and later became director of planning and development for the library as a whole. When Goodrum was asked by the Harry N. Abrams publishing company to write a history of the library, Mrs. Dalrymple became his chief assistant.

"Without her," Goodrum said yesterday, "the book couldn't have been written."

The lavishly illustrated 318-page "Treasures of the Library of Congress" (1980) described how the library grew from an original purchase of 6,487 books from Thomas Jefferson to become the largest repository of printed information in the world.

During the years she worked on the book, Mrs. Dalrymple conducted research in practically every branch of the library's vast holdings, arranged illustrations and photographs and wrote captions for the book's 440 illustrations.

"Leafing through the pages," a Christian Science Monitor reviewer wrote, "you can survey the contents of Lincoln's pockets on the day of his assassination; savor the delicate brushstrokes of a 17th-century Japanese manuscript; study Alexander Graham Bell's first sketch of the telephone; marvel at violins crafted by the master Stradivarius; or note Richard Rodgers's original handwritten score of the musical 'Oklahoma.' " Goodrum and Mrs. Dalrymple collaborated on several shorter books and pamphlets about the library before publishing a second book with Abrams, "Advertising in America: The First 200 Years" (1990), which drew on the library's surprisingly large collection of advertising materials.

"The Library of Congress is the copyright office of the federal government," Goodrum said. "It has two copies of every advertisement since the beginning of time."

Mrs. Dalrymple, who was credited as a co-author with Goodrum, secured permission to use the hundreds of photographs and illustrations featured in the book. The only company that refused her entreaties was the cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris, which would not allow images of the Marlboro man to be used.

Helen Wheatley was born March 10, 1940, in Norwood, Mass., and grew up in Springfield, Mass., two doors away from a public library. Throughout her life, she kept 3-by-5 cards with typed descriptions of the books she read.

She was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and came to Washington after graduating in 1961. She worked in the office of U.S. Sen. Leverett Saltonstall (R-Mass.) for five years before joining the Library of Congress.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when Mrs. Dalrymple worked at the Congressional Research Service, her office typically received 150 to 200 information requests a day from members of Congress. She often emphasized that the library is an arm of Congress, responsible for providing prompt and accurate information to lawmakers.

Away from the library, Mrs. Dalrymple enjoyed hiking and helped her husband edit several editions of a guidebook to the Appalachian Trail. In 1999, she traveled a 65-mile portion of the Lewis and Clark trail in Montana on horseback.

She was also a member of PTA groups and joined with other residents of the District's Palisades neighborhood to improve local public schools.

Survivors include her husband of 42 years, Dana Dalrymple of Washington; two sons, Daniel Dalrymple of Hope, Maine, and William Dalrymple of Bexley, England; a brother; and two grandchildren.

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