This July I had the privilege of visiting the Library of Congress (LOC) in Washington DC. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the LOC, it is the library used by Congress for research. However it’s also much, much more. The LOC is the largest library in the world and contains millions of volumes. It also happens to be one of the most beautiful buildings in Washington, which is a common opinion shared by locals and tourists alike. The outside is similar to the other towering monuments in DC; however it is the inside of the building that is truly amazing. The Great Hall (foyer) is filled – literally – from floor to ceiling with mosaics, gold embellishments, relief sculptures and quotations from famous intellectuals carved in marble. In addition to being decorative, nearly everything in the Great Hall has a symbolic meaning or history. For example, 56 printer’s marks are painted onto the ceiling. Printer’s marks were used by early printers to mark their work – a kind of copyright mark. One can literally spend hours in the great hall looking at the details. However, there was so much more to see! There are public exhibits, including Thomas Jefferson’s Library (with his original books!) and original documents from the founding of America, the Civil War and beyond. One of the main attractions is one of three perfect original Gutenberg bibles. The Gutenberg bibles were the first books printed on moveable type, otherwise known as the printing press, around 1455. On display across from the Gutenberg Bible is the Giant Bible of Mainz, which was one of the last few hand scribed bibles written on vellum. What is amazing about these two books is they were both created during the same time period in the same place, Mainz, Germany. The books symbolize the end of an era of limited written word, and the availability of information en masse to the general public.
After leaving the Great Hall, I was graciously offered a private tour of the “inner workings” of the library of Congress. A “Readers Card” (library card) granted me access to many areas of the library’s collection, including their main reading room, which rivals the Great Hall in splendor. One can truly spend hours at a time just visiting the library and doing research on nearly any topic imaginable. Because the library collection is so large, a majority of it lies behind closed stacks. Requests can be made for specific items, and conveyer belts bring them to the reading room for viewing. In addition to the main reading room, multiple reference areas, offices, computer labs, and more were located throughout the building. Due to time constraints I did not have much time to explore the actual library materials, but believe me, if I ever go back I will spend as much time there as I can!
The LOC is truly a mix of historic beauty, information, and artifacts, all enriched by modern technology and ease of access. I highly encourage anyone traveling to Washington DC to visit the Library of Congress. Even if you just peek into the Great Hall, it will be well worth the trip! For those of you who enjoy virtual travel, the LOC website provides virtual tours, access to their electronic collections, and much more.