Growing up in Philadelphia my family often made trips to Washington D.C. since the two cities were relatively close. However, in the more than 10 times I visited Washington, never once did I step inside the Library of Congress (from this point on I will be abbreviating it to LOC). For that matter, until my most recent trip there last month, I don’t even remember stepping foot on the Capitol Hill area which is where the LOC is located.
The LOC has some pretty impressive credentials-it’s the research library of the United States Congress, the de facto national library of the United States, and the oldest federal cultural institution in the country. The LOC comprises four buildings, making it the largest library in the world by shelf space and number of books. However, the building that most people visit is the Jefferson Building, the piece de resistance of the LOC due to its highly impressive holdings and absolutely stunning architecture.
The LOC was founded for Congress in 1800 and was housed in the United States Capitol for the majority of the 19th century. After the bulk of the original collection was destroyed by the British during the War of 1812, the third American president, Thomas Jefferson, sold more than 6,000 books, his entire personal collection, to the library in 1815. (In his later years, much of Jefferson’s wealth had been lost and he offered to sell his collection as a means of alleviating some of his financial problems; he was paid over $23,000 USD in the early 1800s, which then was an incredibly large sum.)
The Thomas Jefferson Building opened in 1897 and an informational brochure provided by the LOC states “Its artistic decorations relate to learning, literature, knowledge, creativity, and intellectual achievement.” Before visiting I had read that the Great Hall was a sight to behold and yes, it was no exaggeration. The ceiling is a staggering 75 feet above the marble floor and is adorned with stained-glass skylights surrounded by aluminum-leaf decorations. The triangular vaults contain names of the world’s leading writers and thinkers. In the marble floor is a large brass inlay of a compass rose, surrounded by the twelve signs of the zodiac.
What I loved most about the Jefferson Building was its astounding level of detail in almost every square inch of space. Small children were carved into the railings of the marble staircase representing various occupations and hobbies including a hunter with a rabbit and an entomologist with a butterfly. Besides the Great Hall, also found on the first floor are the Gutenberg and Mainz Bibles. Both are handwritten, both were produced in the mid-1450s and both are an astounding 500 plus years old. But like every small and noteworthy object, people swarmed around the cases housing the bibles.
The second floor offers visitors the chance to see the Main Reading Room through a special gallery. (The Main Reading Room is only accessible to researchers 16 and above and requires obtaining a reader identification card prior to entering. It is here where access is had to the library’s vast collection of books, periodicals and other materials. The room was stunning (it even puts the Rose Main reading Room at the New York Public Library to mild shame) most notably for its domed ceiling which rises 160 feet above the floor. One of the room’s prominent features is the 16 bronze statues on the balustrades that “pay homage to men whose lives were devoted to the subjects represented by the plaster statues above them.” Moses (religion), Beethoven (art), and Newton (science) are some of the ones included. My only disappointment is that photography was not permitted in the gallery overlook. While many ignored this and were still snapping away, being ever the good girl and fearful of being spoken to by a security guard, I abstained so sadly I have no personal photos of this spectacular sight. I can understand the reason behind it, yet the overlook is at such an immense height, non-flash photography would not disturb the researchers far down below in the least.
The most notable item on the second floor would probably be Jefferson’s original collection which is displayed behind a glass case in a crescent shape. Although it seems small in such an immense space this was still just one man’s personal collection of books. However, when the LOC sustained a second fire on Christmas Eve 1851, nearly two thirds of the more than 6,000 volumes Congress had purchased from Jefferson were destroyed. The remaining books today are arranged by subject, the manner Jefferson preferred. D asked if I thought Jefferson had read all of the books and I certainly think he did. While some individuals amass collections simply for the sake of doing so, Jefferson was a brilliant scholar and intellectual with reading being one of his greatest passions.
Also located within the Jefferson Building was a series of temporary exhibits-The Civil War in America; a collection on Judaica materials that showcased an earlier one from 1912; and my favorite, Exploring the Early Americas which featured selections from more than 3,000 rare maps, documents, paintings, and artifacts. I adored seeing hand drawn maps of such famous cities and areas as Cusco and Mexico City that dated to when the Spanish first arrived on the shores of the New World.
While a visit to the LOC might be boring for smaller children, it is one of the most spectacular places I have ever visited and still can’t believe it took me all this time to visit, especially since it’s free and open to the public. Go without delay today (or the next time you’re in the nation’s capital).
Neat fact-there is an underground passageway that connects the Jefferson Building with the Capitol.