The Library of Congress
There are few things that can rightly be called magisterial. There’s Lionel Messi , of course, but c’mon, what else is there really? Well, the word is an apt description of the amazing Library of Congress. Spanning three buildings atop an entire city block, the Library of Congress is an impressive and imposing structure. It’s said to be the largest library in the world with a collection of more than 160 million items.
It was started with a one-two-three punch delivered by three early U.S. heavyweights, James Monroe, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Monroe was the first to float the idea of a library to serve the needs of Congress, Adams - during his presidency - earmarked the initial funding for the library, and Jefferson - apparently something of a bookworm - contributed his own library to the early collection. It’s hard to imagine what the three would think today were they to see the institution they helped create in its modern form.
We arrived at the Library on a warm and sunny May morning in Washington, DC. After being briefly waylaid by free oranges and orange juice at the Embassy of the State of Florida, we mounted the broad steps and ascended into library heaven.
Upon entering, we noticed that the library was quite crowded and pretty loud. Throngs of visitors from across the US and around the world filled the entry. The first hall we reached was a two story space with vivid paintings on the walls and ceiling. Up a set of stairs we found ourselves on a mezzanine overlooking the space we had just left. It was teeming with people. We began to worry that we wouldn’t find any place to work. Fortunately, we’re pretty clever and asked for help at the information desk.
A very efficient woman took charge of the situation. She explained that there were plenty of places to work and gave us a list of all of the reading rooms at the Library. In case you’re keeping score at home, here are the various rooms: African and Middle Eastern, American Folklife, Asian, Business, Children’s Literature, Copyright Records and Research, Duplication Services (which doesn’t exactly sound like a reading room if you ask me), European, Geography and Maps, Hispanic, Law, Local History and Genealogy, the Main Reading Room, Manuscripts, Microfilms and Electronic Resources, Motion Pictures and Television, Newspapers and Current Periodicals, Performing Arts and Music, Prints and Photographs, Rare Books, the Recorded Sound Reference Center, and Science and Technology.
Our heads were spinning. At first we didn’t think there was any place to work and now there was seemingly every place to work! Seeing the new perplexity cross our faces, our new-found friend broke it down for us. To use any of the reading rooms we’d need a Library of Congress Reader’s Card. Getting the card - oh, man - was a simple procedure. I think.
First, we’d need to go down a floor to check our bags. Then we needed to follow a hallway around to a back bank of elevators and go to the second floor. Then we needed to the Reader Registration Office in Room LJ-139. We also had to be older than 16 and have a photo ID. It took maybe 15 minutes but at the end we each had a snazzy, hard-plastic Library of Congress Reader’s Card with our own pictures right on them! You could almost hear the heavenly hosts singing as we received our cards. It was amazing.
Where to go, where to go! So many choices. The Rare Books reading room sounded cool but when we went in they explained that you had to request a rare book if you wanted to see one - and we figured that you’d probably need some reason to ask for one too. Were we thwarted? Not on your life! The Main Reading Room beckoned.
We pushed open the doors and were in the building’s inner sanctum. The room is an octagon, many stories tall and perhaps 100 feet across. Curved rows of desks run around the room in concentric arcs. A massive domed ceiling was above us, painted with figures from history that illustrated one important idea or another.
We situated ourselves at two tables in the outer ring of desks and were mesmerized. We worked diligently and with a purpose, how could one not in a place like this? We could see tourists peering down into the room from glassed-in galleries high above. That could have been us, we reflected, had we not thought to ask for help upon our arrival. Instead, there we were, in that citadel of knowledge, that redoubt of reason, that library of libraries!
Our work at a good stopping point and our time flying, we packed our computers, collected our checked bags and went to the Library of Congress shop. Sadly, as is the case with so many libraries, the color orange was woefully underrepresented. We were able to find a few small knick-knacks but finally our visit was well and truly over. As we descended the broad steps we returned to the land outside the Library - sorry to be leaving but richer for having been. What a day!
Now, of course, we rate libraries so no visit would be complete without a ranking. The thing is, it’s hard to rate the Library of Congress. You can’t check books out, for example and there are no study rooms per se - but c’mon, it’s the Library of Congress! It may be the most complete library in the world but it scores a 4.55 in our book. Ignore that. If you are in Washington, you owe it to yourself to visit the Library - but don’t just visit. No, go get your Reader’s Card and let yourself be transported by this one-of-a-kind institution.