Calling all book worms. Come feast at the Library of Congress (LOC) in Washington DC.
A book worm is defined as the larva of a wood-boring beetle that feeds on the paper and glue in books.
While you definitely will get thrown out of the LOC if you come to snack, you can feed your senses on the architecture, decor, and artifacts.
Founded in 1800, the Library of Congress is the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States. Originally, the library was housed in the new U.S. Capitol. The initial collection consisted of 740 books and three maps.
But during the War of 1812, British troops burned the U.S. Capitol on August 24, 1814. It would take 83 years before the new building would open.
There are four buildings comprising the Library of Congress. The oldest is the Thomas Jefferson Building, located on First Street SE between Independence Avenue and East Capitol Street. Its entrance faces the U.S. Capitol. The U.S. Supreme Court is located to the right of this building. In 1965, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.
“With its synthesis of architecture, art, decoration and ambition, the Library of Congress’s Jefferson Building ranks among America’s greatest achievements.”Architect of the Capitol
Table of Contents
The best way to arrive at the LOC is by walking across the U.S. Capitol’s grounds. Through the woodland pathways designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, I can peek through the stately oaks and elms to see the Thomas Jefferson Building.
“I mean not so much grand or sensational scenery as scenery of a more domestic order — scenery which is to be looked upon contemplatively and is producing of musing moods.”Frederick Law Olmsted
It is so easy for me to lose myself in my daily walks on the U.S. Capitol grounds. The pathways meander past groves of trees, some more than 100 years old. But today on my journey to the Thomas Jefferson Building, I walk quickly, not stopping to sit on a bench or lean my body against a tree.
Thomas Jefferson Building
Standing at First Street SE, I gaze at this resplendent Beaux Arts building. According to the Architect of the Capitol, “Beaux Arts architecture style is a theatrical and heavily ornamented classical style taught during the 19th century at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
Today, it is recognized as a premier example of the Beaux Arts style, which is theatrical, heavily ornamented and kinetic.”Architect of the Capitol
The building features 15 varieties of marble, 400,000 cubic feet of granite as well as bronze, gold, and mahogany embellishments.
There are nine busts of “Great Men” across the portico of the front entrance pavilion: Demosthenes, Emerson, Irving, Goethe, Franklin, Macaulay, Hawthorne, Scott, and Dante. They were carved by Herbert Adams, Jonathan Scott Hartley, and Frederick W. Ruckstull.
Outside, there is a fountain with three statues representing Roman mythological creatures.
King Neptune is seated in the middle. He is the Roman god of the sea (as well as brother of Minerva). He is surrounded by his court in the Neptune Fountain. The three statues were also carved by Herbert Adams, Jonathan Scott Hartley, and Frederick Ruckstull. Roland Hinton Perry sculpted the fountain.
On both sides of the Neptune Fountain, there is the monumental split stair that leads to a terrace that faces the U.S. Capitol. There is another staircase to climb.
Visitors enter on the lower level through the security station. But it is not unusual to see individuals posing for photographs on the stairs outside the Thomas Jefferson Building.
From the moment I walk through the front doors, I feel awe. Can you remember visiting your local library as a child? Your mother would “shoosh” you, saying this is a quiet place for study.
Due to Covid, visitors are required to show a timed pass to enter the Thomas Jefferson Building. This can be obtained online by visiting the LOC website. Visitor hours are Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, 10:00am – 4:00pm, with the last passes of the day offered at 3:00pm.
After I am checked in by the staff, I proceed to take an old-fashioned elevator up to the second floor. It is worth the wait to ride this elevator.
The LOC is a cathedral to learning. There are more than 170 million items, including books and other printed materials, recordings, photographs, maps, and manuscripts.
“The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world with more than 170 million items.”
Yet the LOC is of the people and for the people (although it is not a borrowing library). I chuckle to see our third president, Thomas Jefferson, wearing a mask. This plaster bust of Thomas Jefferson is a copy of a work by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon.
Another jewel in the LOC’s collection is the Gutenberg Bible. It represents the first “great book” printed in Western Europe from movable metal type. NOTE: You are not allowed to use flash photography if you take a picture of this book.
If you only walked around the Great Hall on your first visit to the Thomas Jefferson Building, your time would not be wasted. I decided to type every quotation engraved on the wall.
While I am sure that I could locate these quotes on the LOC website, I found it more fulfilling to stop and record each quote. A volunteer guide stopped me to inquire what I was doing.
“Reading,” I responded.
These quotes were chosen by Harvard University President Charles W. Eliot and Librarian of Congress Rand Spofford. Some of their choices now seem archaic but then so does the alphabet. I had to train my brain to turn what looked like the letter V into the letter U.
One of the oddest quotes made me ponder the writer’s choice of imagery.
“Tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stone, and good in everything.”Shakespeare
I was startled to discover the author of this quote was the Bard. “And this our life exempt from public haunts . . .”
The names and quotes in the Great Hall were chosen by Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1825-1908) and Harvard University President Charles W. Eliot (1834-1926). The works of these illustrious authors were popular at the time the building was constructed, and they were considered to have made great contributions to literature and the study of history.
Some other favorite quotes:
“The true university of these days is a collection of books.” (Thomas Carlyle)
“Art is long and time is fleeting.” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)
“In books lies the soul of the whole past time.” (Thomas Carlyle)
And . . .
“The glory of every people arises from its authors.”Samuel Johnson
Main Reading Room
After I finished typing all the quotes in the Great Hall, I proceeded to the stairs to reach the third level. Hidden behind a wall is the Main Reading Room Overlook.
Pre-pandemic, the LOC limited visitors to three minutes to stand looking down at the Main Reading Room from the Overlook. But there are no crowds touring the building today so i can linger. A volunteer guide discusses the Reading Room with four visitors. I eavesdrop. Later I will talk to Ann about my experience sitting in the Reading Room.
I have actually sat at a desk looking up at the visitors in the Overlook. Anyone can do it if they apply for a Reader Identification card (library card). It takes about 30 minutes. You will need a form of identification, such as a driver’s license.
However, due to Covid, you must call the LOC in advance to gain access to the Main Reading Room. I plan to return on another day to sit in this palatial room among the other researchers and writers.
Like the Great Hall, the Main Reading Room has a magnificent ceiling. If you look up, you will also see 16 statues of men (set upon the balustrades of the galleries) representing Religion, Commerce, History, Art, Philosophy, Poetry, Law, and Science. Poetry is represented by the statues of Homer and William Shakespeare.
“Eight giant marble columns each support 10-foot-high allegorical female figures in plaster representing characteristic features of civilized life and thought: Religion, Commerce, History, Art, Philosophy, Poetry, Law and Science.” (Source: LOC)
Under the dome, I can see 12 figures. They represent different countries or regions of the Western World which were considered advanced in the 19th century. As an example, the Middle Ages represent Modern Languages. Judea represents Religion. Italy represents the Fine Arts. Germany represents the Art of Printing. Spain represents Discovery. England represents Literature. The United States represents Science.
Thomas Jefferson’s Library
When the U.S. Capitol was burned, all the books in the Library of Congress were destroyed. Former President Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his collection of books to the nation. It represented the largest personal collection of books in the United States.
“Congress purchased Jefferson’s library for $23,950 in 1815. A second fire on Christmas Eve of 1851, destroyed nearly two thirds of the 6,487 volumes Congress had purchased from Jefferson.”Library of Congress
Today, visitors can see the actual books that Thomas Jefferson read at Monticello. Due to the generosity of a grant from Jerry and Gene Jones, the Library of Congress is attempting to reassemble Jefferson’s library as it was sold to Congress.
I spent a great deal of time in this darkened room off of the Great Hall browsing at the Thomas Jefferson’s Library exhibit. The books were safeguarded behind glass. But if I saw a green ribbon, I knew this was a book that Jefferson owned. My biggest discovery was to see a red leather-bound copy of Plato’s Republic.
Green ribbon inserted in Plato’s Republic
The Library of Congress is one of the top 3 places to tour if you visit Washington DC. A short visit will only take two to three hours, but you could easily spend an entire day.
I visited the LOC for the first time as an undergraduate journalism student attending the University of Maryland. I was preparing a paper for my Woman Studies class on female editors of 19th-century women’s magazines. After I applied for my library card, I was able to check out a copy of Godey’s Lady Book. Launched in 1830, this magazine addressed topics pertinent to women readers. I can still remember the magic of flipping through the pages of a journal that was over 140 years old.
To paraphrase Jefferson, “I cannot live without books . . .” or the Library of Congress.