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Celebrating Citizenship at Museums and Libraries

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

By Teri DeVoe
Library Program Officer, IMLS

Annual Fourth of July events give Americans a special opportunity to celebrate our nation’s freedoms and values. It’s fitting, then, that thousands of new U.S. citizens get to take their Oath of Allegiance in conjunction with this holiday. This past weekend, I was moved to watch over 100 individuals participate in a naturalization ceremony at George Washington’s Mount Vernon in Virginia, which was one of more than 50 such events around the country. Although the ceremony I watched had its own special hallmarks, including a keynote address from CIA Director John Brennan and words of inspiration from a George Washington reenactor, it had features in common with many other naturalization events that weekend.

People seated at the naturalization ceremony at George Washington's Mount Vernon

Attendees the naturalization ceremony at George Washington’s Mount Vernon on July 4, 2015

For one thing, all citizenship candidates take the Oath of Allegiance, which is the final step in the naturalization process to become a U.S. citizen.  Through these words, spoken aloud, they pledge to support the Constitution and provide service to the United States when called upon to do so. Citizenship candidates also have to pass a naturalization test. Many natural-born citizens are duly humbled when faced with questions from the civics portion of this test. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has developed extensive study materials and resources to help prepare permanent residents for the naturalization test. A study tool I’m particularly fond of is an interactive study guide that USCIS created in partnership with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It showcases artifacts from the museum’s collections and exhibitions that relate to the content of the test, such as sheet music for “The Star-Spangled Banner” and WWII war bonds posters featuring General Eisenhower.

The cultural heritage content in these study materials is related to a third connecting strand that I noticed in many of this past weekend’s ceremonies. Of the more than 50 naturalization events that took place across the country July 1-4, over a third took place at libraries and museums, including historic sites like Mount Vernon. That’s not even counting the additional ceremony venues at historic parks, memorials, and landmarks. From the National WWII Museum in New Orleans to the Calvin Coolidge Homestead in Plymouth, VT, where our 30th U.S. president was actually born on the Fourth of July, these historic settings clearly resonate as naturalization ceremony venues.

What is it about these places that lend themselves to civic identity? Tom Mayes of the National Trust for Historic Preservation offered some thoughtful insight around this question in a 2013 blog series entitled, “Why Do Old Places Matter?” He shared how places like Mount Vernon embody the history and principles of the United States and help people define who they are through memory, continuity, and identity. He tackled nationalism’s “dark history” but maintained that these places “embody our ever-changing shared identities and serve as tangible sites for transforming identity.”

Who knows if George Washington, himself ever had an inkling that his estate would serve as a welcoming place for new American citizens. But he surely hinted at the connection between libraries, museums, and civic engagement when he said, “To encourage literature and the arts is a duty which every good citizen owes to his country.”

For more information about the naturalization process and the resources available from USCIS, visit uscis.gov/citizenship.

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