The Corner Forum
Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2003
Issue #51

Zdenek David: Librarian and Historian

Zdenek (Zed) David, 517 13th St. NE, was interviewed last month by Eric Bernard and Demetra (Deta) Voyadgis, 1223 E St. NE.

Mr. David was librarian at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars from 1974 to 2002. He was educated as a historian and received a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1960.

His latest book, Finding the Middle Way: The Utraquists' Liberal Challenge to Rome and Luther, was published in August by Johns Hopkins University Press.

This issue features the part of the interview focusing on Mr. David's background. Mr. Bernard asked all questions but the last, which Ms. Voyadgis asked. The next issue will feature the rest of the interview, focusing on the book.

Before we discuss your book, maybe we can get some general background information — a little bit about yourself. How long you have been living on Capitol Hill? And I detect a bit of an accent, if you would tell us where you are from, originally?

Yes, gladly. I was born in a country which was called Czechoslovakia. It split up, peacefully, thank God, in 1993, into the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. I was from the Czech Republic part, and before coming to the United States I lived in Prague.

I had left, however, in 1947 to come to the U.S. and study in secondary school. It was the time that Czechoslovakia fell behind the iron curtain. I managed to stay here and complete my education. I was studying as a historian — I have a PhD in History.

I did some college teaching at first. Then I shifted more towards library work, but I retained my interest in research. My original work was in the intellectual, especially religious history of Russia. It was, of course, a country of great interest in the Cold War. Later on I shifted more towards my native region, which was called Eastern Europe.

I produced a book in cooperation with a senior colleague which dealt with the history of the various nations of Central Europe. It was called The Peoples of the Eastern Habsburg Lands; it came out in 1984. From then on, I focused more on cultural history and especially religious issues.

For people who might not know the current geopolitical makeup, is Prague a part of the Czech Republic or the Slovak Republic?

It is the capital of the Czech Republic. Prior to the division it was also the capital of the whole Czechoslovakia. The capital of Slovakia is called Bratislava.

When did you move on to Capitol Hill?

In 1975, for the first time. I got my position at the Wilson Center in 1974 and first settled in Virginia, which involved three hours of commuting every day. It got very tiresome, so as a result I thought it was easier to move closer to my job. I moved here in 1975. But briefly — well not so briefly — for about five years, I lived in suburban Maryland, from 1980 to 1985. Then I moved back to Capitol Hill. Originally, the first time, I lived on 4th Street NE. The second time I lived in an apartment on 11th Street, from 1985 to 1992. In 1992 I acquired the present dwelling on 13th Street. So I have been shifting a little further east as time went on.

Thank you very much. Is the Woodrow Wilson Center in Kalorama near Dupont Circle?

No, you might be thinking of President Wilson's house. After he retired from the Presidency he lived there and spent his last few years there. But the Center itself is located in the Reagan Building, near the Federal Triangle metro station.

Yes, on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Exactly. Prior to that, about 1998, before the Reagan Building was constructed, the Center was in the Smithsonian Castle. So from 1974 to 1998 I was actually working in the Castle, where the library facilities were not very good. The books were mostly in corridors and various rooms. So moving to the new quarters in 1998 was a great improvement.

We have a genuine library which occupies the whole seventh floor, in our section of the Reagan Building. The Center itself is a memorial for President Woodrow Wilson. It is maintained by the federal government — in other words we are sort of like the Washington Monument, except that we are an organization rather than a physical structure.

The purpose of the Center is to bring together the world of academia and the world of public affairs — the idea being that each side might learn from the other. In other words — this is a trivial example — somebody from the State Department carries on diplomatic works and has a great deal of experience in negotiating and matters of that nature, while somebody who is a professor of diplomatic history might know a lot of background about how things were being done in the past and how we got in the world to where we are, but has never had any hands on experience with diplomatic negotiations. And the idea is that the two sides can contribute to each other.

Also, as far as President Wilson is concerned, the two aspects of Wilson's person come together in the Center's activities. He was a scholar to begin with, with a PhD from Johns Hopkins, a university professor at Princeton, president of Princeton University, and then he became a statesman. He became the governor of New Jersey and president of the United States. So in his personality were combined the two aspects — scholarship and politics.

I did a search at the Web site on your name, and I noticed that you co-authored a number of books in a series titled The Scholars' Guide to Washington. Would you tell us what is the purpose of the Scholars' Guide?

The Center is divided into several regional programs, such as the Latin American program, the African program and the Eastern European program. The idea was that since we were encouraging research in various world regions, we should try to survey what types of resources were available in the Washington, D.C., area for the study of these individual regions, as a service to our own fellows and scholars, and also to other scholars who come to Washington to do research using the unmatched resources of the city — the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and so on. It is estimated that there are some twenty thousand scholars who come to Washington, D.C., each year for that purpose.

Each of the Guides is divided into two sections. One of them deals with depositories which keep materials for specific regions, like libraries, archives, map collections and collections of sound recordings. And the other half is devoted to organizations which deal with the area of concern, such as private organizations, government organizations, universities and their special programs. Some of the guides have more than one edition, but there are 14 distinct guides which appeared between 1975 and 1995.

Well, I don't have any more questions. Thank you very much for your time.

Thank you, I enjoyed talking with you. §