The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. is open to the public and is not only a library but also a museum with palace-like décor. Founded in 1800 by order of President John Adams, this collecting place for books of all kinds began with a budget of $5,000. Trouble came in the form of fire during the War of 1812, but Thomas Jefferson stepped in to sell the library part of his private collection to restock the bookshelves. The library now consists of three buildings, with the main building dating from 1897. In 1980, it was renamed the Thomas Jefferson building, and this is where you will want to head if you’re visiting Washington, D.C.
At the information desk, pick up a map and list of exhibits and sign up for a tour. Then enjoy the center floor, sculptures, marble staircases, and mosaic ceilings.
You may have seen the Reading Room of the Library of Congress in movies such as “National Treasure” or magazine features. It’s truly a magnificent room, though you need a special pass to go in. The library is working on digitizing all the literature here, so I was surprised to learn they still have the card catalogs in back rooms, kept for their historical value.
The heart of the Jefferson Library of Congress is the collection of books from Jefferson’s library. Many of the books burned, but the library has been working steadily to find genuine replacements for all of those volumes. A simple marking method of a green ribbon bookmark shows which books were owned by Jefferson. Those with a yellow ribbon are found replacements. A few boxes keep the place of volumes still being searched for. To stand in the presence of books actually touched by Jefferson is quite thrilling.
We arrived at opening and spent about 2 hours in the library before our tour. This worked out well. We could move at our own pace, then we joined the tour and our excellent guide filled in background on what we had just seen. We could ask any questions, too. We got a better idea of the vastness of the holdings of the library – not just books but also film, maps, and artifacts. For example, the piano of composer George Gershwin is here!
A surprising bit of information is that as imposing as the building itself is from the outside, it was almost finished before anyone gave thought to the inside. One man was hired to decorate, and the result is amazing.
Our tour ended at lunchtime, and our guide gave us an excellent tip. Cross the street to the James Madison Memorial building of the library, which is administration and storage of manuscripts. On the sixth floor is a cafeteria for the government employees that’s also open to the public, though it’s not advertised. We had a delicious lunch and sat among the people who work there, so much more fun than eating at a touristy, overpriced place.
We ended up stopping back at the Library of Congress a few days later, just to see it again. Whether or not you’re a fan of libraries, this is one certainly worth a visit.
The Library of Congress is open Monday through Saturday from 8:30 to 5:00. For more information, visit the website here.
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