The Editor goes to the Library of Congress

Reading Room Library of Congress

Reading Room at the Library of Congress, Photochrom print from 1901. Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As I trudged through freshly fallen snow and biting wind in southeast DC last Friday, my main thought was, “OK, why am I here right now?” It was numbingly cold — the wind definitely shivered the timbers! Admiring the architecture of the buildings around me helped to distract me a bit, but it was still freezing.

Part of the reason for my visit was because I had made a promise to a fellow blogger that I’d blog about the Library of Congress (LOC) if I ever went and to meet another WordPress blogger, S. She is a recent transplant to the DC area from New York and seeks work as an entry-level writer and social media person, something to which I could relate. So we met at a Starbucks on Pennsylvania Avenue and had a great time in the cozy, coffee-scented warmth, chatting for two hours about the DC area, networking, blogging, writing and social media.

Afterward, I walked over to LOC. It’s actually three different buildings — the James Madison building, the John Adams building and the Thomas Jefferson building. I peeked in at the Madison building but there wasn’t much to see, so I went over to Thomas Jefferson.

As I stepped into the 75-foot Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson building, my first thought was “OH WOW!” This is the view I had:

Great Hall Library of Congress

Wouldn’t you like to work here every day? Lucky librarians! Public domain image of Thomas Jefferson Great Hall, Library of Congress, courtesy of Carol M. Highsmith, Wikimedia Commons.

Now I’ve seen some gorgeous interiors in my time — including the Kennedy Center, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle — but I’ve got to say, this place would make Michelangelo sob with joy. I wandered around the Hall and checked out their Christmas tree, which was still on display. All the ornaments had a literary theme and I immediately craved them.

I also viewed the Main Reading Room, but from its balcony. I couldn’t go in on the main floor because you need a special reader identification card to enter. But the balcony offered a decent view, even through sheets of transparent acrylic plastic.

I visited a series of exhibits on different topics. One of my favorites was one dedicated to the Civil War. I got to see a copy of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s handwriting, the contents of Lincoln’s greatcoat pockets on the day of his assassination (a wallet, a pocketknife, a watch fob, two of the tiniest pairs of eyeglasses that I’ve ever seen and other objects) and Walt Whitman’s haversack.

Walt lived in DC for a while, working in the army paymaster’s office and volunteering as a nurse. He was a great believer in visiting the sick to cheer them up with small items for their comfort, which he’d keep in the haversack and give out to patients. I liked finding out that this great writer had a kindly side to him.

Another interesting discovery is that LOC is a lot more than just a storage place for books. They’ve got Presidential papers, other documents of historical or literary interest, photographs and tons of other items that need preservation. I’d love to see what they have about the Titanic.

I think my favorite features were the Gutenberg Bible (So big! It must weigh a ton to carry around), Thomas Jefferson’s collection of books (over 6,000!) and the quotes scattered around the second level of the Great Hall. Here’s a few of them for your enjoyment:

Books will speak plain when counselors blanch.

Knowledge comes but wisdom lingers.

The chief glory of every people arises from its authors. (Editor’s note: Hear, hear!)

In books lies the soul of the whole past time.

I breezed through the gift shop and considered visiting the Adams building, but chose to walk over to the Folger Shakespeare Library because it was so close. They had an exhibition of historic costumes and theater sets in a Tudor-style gallery which looked as if it could easily conceal a hidden passage or two (check out the images here).

And I explored the theater from the balcony since a crew was busy building a set for the next production. The interior of the theater is also Tudor style and reminded me of the Globe Theater with the half-timbers and lots of carved wood. I’m definitely going to a production there someday, when there’s time.

(It made me a little homesick. I did a lot of crew work in my college theater and I miss it. *sighs*)

After the Folger, it was time to hop back onto the Metro to head home. It was a good day, though cold, and I hope to revisit LOC again. Definitely worth the trip!



Filed under Writing

34 responses to “The Editor goes to the Library of Congress

  1. “I cannot live without books.” My favorite quote.

  2. Servetus

    I used the Folger for my dissertation — they are comparatively strict with their users.

    • Good to know! I can understand — they probably have a lot of materials that need delicate treatment.

      • Servetus

        No, I should have said — as opposed to other rare books collections in the US and particularly in Europe. You need two scholarly references from established scholars to even enter the reading room, for instance. Their behavior is more in line with standards at personal / private libraries.

      • Ah, I see. Good thing I didn’t try to see the reading room (although while walking by, I did sneak a brief peek through one curtain which seemed to be protecting some library room!).

  3. Beautiful and really impressive too!!!

  4. I’ve never worked in a beautiful building. Some uglier than others, most dull and ordinary. I wonder if you stop noticing the architecture after a while? I don’t think I could ever fail to notice it. It’s stunning.

    • With any architecture, ugly or not, I guess you get used to the place. But I imagine that it’s a thrill to walk through a place like that everyday. I don’t think I’d ever get tired of such magnificent surroundings.

      The rest of the building had a lot of long, plainish hallways (what was open to the public, I mean). They did have some displays set up in different rooms, so it was a treat to find those.

  5. You forgot to mention passing JM in the hall!
    They don’t make government buildings like that anymore. How special that is holds our beloved books and papers.

    • I shudder to think of what it would cost to create a building like this in DC today. Ouch.

      JM bowed very politely when I passed him in the hallway. Standards of courtesy must be upheld, don’t you know. After all, he was a VERY distant relative of mine (according to my sib’s genealogy research, we’re related to JM’s grandmother).

  6. These are some of the best places to visit ever. Always something new to discover in there. (Wish I could have seen that Christmas tree and those ornaments)

  7. Delightful post! I learned some things. I, too, would love to see Jefferson’s books, especially after visits to Poplar Forest and Monticello last year. I believe his collection of books (which he replaced after he gave them away because he missed them) were the whole of LOC’s original collection.

  8. I would love to see that bible and Jefferson’s collection. Your pictures are gorgeous. Wow! Thanks for writing about your trip. I love experiencing these things via other bloggers.

    • If you’re ever in the DC area, it’s pretty easy to get to the LOC. Capitol South is the nearest Metro stop and LOC is only a few blocks away. I recommend spring, though. Much warmer. *wry grin*

  9. I guess, if the trend continues, our glories are book porn and vampires…

    • I’m still trying to figure out why some classics like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre have been written in vampire versions. Are the writers just trying to capitalize on the current trend for vampires, or wanting to write something different from the mainstream? That could be another blog post, I’m thinking.

      • Well, I found the new versions funny as I can’t stand the books and I have never been able to tell why they are held in such high esteem. I think that the changes are an adequate way of showing how worthless the material is AND they illustrate the idea of how what is written now is twisted in the future.

      • Yep, definitely another blog post in the near future. I think it would be interesting to get an online discussion going about this between you, me and the other readers.

  10. I feel lucky that we have ONE architecturally gorgeous building in our city…our courthouse…Thanks so much for this post…loved it 🙂

  11. Very cool post! I love the LOC. I used to walk over there on my lunch break when I worked at the Department of Labor, and it never failed to take my breath away. Sounds like you had a fantastic day!

  12. I spent much time during the 1980s in the LOC. Had a research job and working on a PhD kept me busy. I hated the cold weather blowing up Capital Hill (I worked in the Cannon building part of the time.) The walk from my office to the LOC ruined many pairs of shoes.

    Had a job offer from the Congressional Research Service in the late 1970s, but turned it down to work for a large corporation…sometimes I wonder what I missed. Dianne

  13. Oh. Oh my. I will have to save my nickels and visit. *big sigh of longing*

  14. Oh my goodness, that view is lovely, indeed. It sounds like a magical place.


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