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U.S. House Historian Preserves Past In 'Presentist' Institution

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By Thomas Pierce

As the current Congress winds down, a whole new batch of freshmen representatives waits to be sworn in after the New Year. Until then, it's office measurements and orientation. This year's orientation included a visit from the official U.S. House historian, Matthew Wasniewski.

"It was kind of an awe-inspiring thing to be able to stand in the well of the House, in the House chamber, and tell these new members-elect a little bit about the institution that they're going to become part of," says Wasniewski, who was appointed House historian in October.

So what did the freshmen representatives want to know from their historian?

"They were particularly interested in learning about first-term members who had made a splash in their first term," he says.

Wasniewski has been on the Hill since 1998, spending a lot of that time in the House Office of History and Preservation. That's where he helped start the House Oral History Project, which has focused mainly on staff members.

He says making sure the stories that "hadn't been told" don't slip through the cracks of history is a challenge, especially in the House.

"It's a presentist institution, and it's that way by design. They must be elected every two years. There's kind of this constant refreshing," he says.

And so when the 112th Congress gets underway in January, the House historian will continue his work to make sure that no one forgets the 111th that came before it.

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