Spotlight: Library of Congress

Jefferson Building, Library of Congress, Washington DC
The Jefferson Building:

Upon first entering the building there is a moment of adjustment, as you go from the drab gray stone exterior to the intricately detailed Great Hall. There is so much going on in-between the marbled floor with brass inlays to the skylights with aluminum plating that it’s hard to know what to look at first. Evidence of the more than 50 artists that contributed to this masterpiece is strewn throughout every inch of the building. Two grand staircases flank both sides of the Great Hall each one decorated with putti, which are figures representing occupations or pursuits of contemporary American life of the time. The staircases are each capped off with bronze statues holding a torch of electric light. These are in commemoration of Benjamin Franklyn’s discovery of electricity, other tributes can also be found throughout the Jefferson building of the library. Taking either of the two staircases leads you to the second floor and allows you to take in the marvel of the zodiac floor. From this point you will see a smaller staircase taking you even further up where you will be immediately enchanted by the Mosaic of Minerva greeting you half way up. Once you pull yourself way from that continue up the stairs and you can catch a glimpse of the Main Reading Room. This is one magnificent room, unfortunately from this vantage point you don’t get a chance to truly take in the domed ceiling. Head back down the stairs to begin your exploration of all the library has to offer, or head to the lower level to signup for a tour.

Zodiac in the marble floor of the Great Hall

Zodiac in the marble floor of the Great Hall.

Stained glass ceiling with aluminum plating of the Great Hall

Stained glass ceiling with aluminum plating of the Great Hall.

Grand Staircase with bronze statue of a woman holding an electric torch

Grand Staircase with bronze statue of a woman holding an electric torch.

Minerva mosaic by Elihu Vedder, Library of Congress

Minerva mosaic by Elihu Vedder.

Reading Room, Jefferson Building, Library of Congress

Reading Room, Jefferson Building, Library of Congress.

The Reading Room has an open house twice a year, and that is the only time when the public has access to it, in tourist style capacity. The open house gives you a chance to wander around and take photos of the Reading Room and the card catalog. As of 1980 the card catalog is no longer being added to, but as it stands it has 22 million cards in some 22,000 drawers. As you can guess all new entries go into the online catalog which gets about 10,000 items added each working day. It is a beautiful room and I highly recommend going to the open house, the library also has activities and information booths setup for the event.

Dome, Reading Room, Jefferson Building, Library of Congress

Dome, Reading Room, Jefferson Building, Library of Congress.

Eagle emblem in the chairs of the Reading Room

Eagle emblem in the chairs of the Reading Room.

Card catalog, Library of Congress

Card catalog, Library of Congress

An aisle in the card catalog, Library of Congress

An aisle in the card catalog, Library of Congress

Galileo card from the card catalog, Library of Congress

Galileo card from the card catalog, Library of Congress.

The Jefferson building makes up the bulk of the public face of the Library of Congress and most of that building is occupied with the Reading Room. The library is not quite setup like your local library branch, it is a research library and one must obtain a library card before you can even enter the reading room; with the exception of open house days. Once you gain access it is not for tourist reasons, people are there to study and research and taking photos of the facility will not be permitted. There are several exhibits on display in the halls off of the Great Hall, including what remains of Thomas Jefferson’s personal collection of books.

Great Hall, Library of Congress

Great Hall, Library of Congress

Capitol Hill Campus:

Three buildings make up the Capitol Hill campus of the Library of Congress. The Jefferson Building, Adams Building and Madison Building, each one contains a different section of the library’s collection. Tunnels connect the three buildings with each other as well as with the U.S. Capitol Building. There is an additional tunnel to one of the neighboring office buildings, but it is only accessible by staff. Without your library card you will only be able to visit the Jefferson Building.

History:

The Library of Congress was established April 24, 1800, by President John Adams. Thomas Jefferson played the next key role in the Library’s early formation, signing on January 26, 1802, the first law establishing the structure of the Library of Congress it also established a presidentially appointed post of Librarian of Congress. The Library of Congress was destroyed in August 1814, when invading British Regulars set fire to several government buildings including the Capitol and destroyed the collection of 3,000 volumes. Within a month, former president Jefferson offered his personal library as a replacement to the lost volumes. On December 24, 1851, the largest fire in the Library’s history destroyed 35,000 books, about two–thirds of the Library’s 55,000 book collection, including two–thirds of Jefferson’s original transfer. Congress in 1852 quickly appropriated $168,700 to replace the lost books. By 1990, the Library of Congress became the world’s largest library, and retains that title today. Interesting fact, two thirds of the books it acquires each year are in languages other than English.

Logistics:

Getting There: The Jefferson Building is located at 10 First Street, SE, Washington, DC 20540. The Closest Metro stop is “Capitol South” off of the Blue\Orange\Silver line trains.

Entry:  Entrance to the Jefferson Building is Free. Tours are highly recommended and on a first come, first serve basis, they are also free.

Hours: Monday- Saturday 8:30am-5:00pm. The library is Closed: Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. *The Reading Room is open to the public 2 days a year. The days do vary but typically one day in the fall: Veterans Day or Columbus Day and one day in the winter: MLK Day or Presidents Day; watch the library’s site for the announcement.

More Info: More info about visiting the library is here. Information about obtaining your library card here.

RECOMMENDABLE: Without a doubt! The building itself is reason enough to go. The staff are very friendly and always willing to answer questions.

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