Students in McLean High School’s Living History class are not just recreating history, they’re helping the Smithsonian Institution to preserve it.  

The class, in which students are assigned to delve deeply into the lives of 18th Century historical figures, recently visited the rare books collection at the Smithsonian’s Dibner Library inside the National Museum of American History. Impressed by their dedication, the Smithsonian then invited the students back to participate in a first-ever reception in the Castle Commons last month where the museum recruited donors to “Adopt-a-Book” for acquisition and preservation.

“The [students] involved in that had such a high level of involvement with the stuff we showed them, it was really gratifying for us,” said Kirsten van der Veen of the Dibner Library.  “It’s nice to show this stuff to young people because most people don’t really get exposed to this until ... maybe never.”

Annemieke Janssen, a senior at McLean High School, and Melinda McCalley, a veteran of Living History and now a freshman at George Washington University, held forth with guests on topics such as science and ladies’ dress during Colonial times. 

“I think that it’s really nice to see how the Smithsonian is willing to work with high school kids, even though we’re not professionals.  It’s just a lot of fun to walk around and talk to people and show them all this 18th century stuff,” Janssen said.

The Smithsonian rated the evening a rousing success. More than 20 books were adopted during the program, which was hosted by the Embassy of Italy, Italian Cultural Institute and Italians in D.C.

“We’d like to make this an annual event,” said Christina Muracco, Director of Development for the Smithsonian Libraries.  “Partnering with the Italian Embassy was a lot of fun. ... We have so many Italian books, but we also have a lot of other European books, German and French, so there’s a lot of opportunity to collaborate with a lot of different embassies.”

The rare books that were adopted will be restored by two book conservators from the Smithsonian Institution at their lab in Northern Virginia.  Their goal will be to retain the original bindings, while being as noninvasive as possible, but also to make the book serviceable so it can be read.

Last year, McLean High School students Evan Jarvis, Nick Shahbas, Nick Durham and Brian Tong interacted with visitors to Montpelier as part of their “Living History” course. Now the class is helping the Smithsonian acquire and preserve rare books. (Yasmine Panah)

“We do a lot of paper repairs, we do a lot of re-backings, which is just putting a new back on, and then we’ll replace the old back on top of the new back so it looks as original as possible,” said Katie Wagner, one of the two book conservators at the Smithsonian.  “We even will wash paper in deionized water, particularly papers that have been damaged by water.”

Guest Michael Hoagland decided to become a donor because he and his partner, Joe Kolb, are book lovers. 

“We saw the beautiful book on fish, and I said, ‘That looks really, really beautiful,’ so I thought, I'll adopt a book while I'm here,” said Hoagland.

Kolb added, “The nice thing about the book he showed me is there are two of the exact same book.  But even though they’re the exact same book, they’re completely different by the way they’re printed; each was printed individually.  When you’re doing hand printing, then you don’t, it’s not like today where you’re mass producing a hundred thousand at the same time.”

The evening’s book adoptions are meant to be a personal experience for donors so that the money isn’t going toward something of which the donor is not aware, said Vanessa Haight Smith, head of Preservation Services. 

“I think that it’s important to maintain a relationship and for them to feel a connection with the library and the books.  They're sort of a mentor to these objects and keeping it alive for the next several hundred years so research can be done,” said Smith.

Every donor will receive a letter from the head of special collections, and then the conservators will keep donors informed about the stages and progress in the conservation process to maintain donor connections to the books.

Lilla Vekerdy has been Head of Special Collections for all Smithsonian libraries with rare book collections for three years. 

“Many people who come here see rare books the first time in their lives.  They never saw something that was more than 400 years old, you know.  And they actually can lean close and look at it and even touch it or turn pages in it. ... I think it's an experience people don't get elsewhere, a type of intellectual experience ...”

Visit to view books available for adoption online.