In a world full of beautiful libraries, this one holds its own. The Library of Congress is America’s public library. Containing one of the largest collections anywhere, it is not only a spectacular building worth visiting, but also an institution fascinating in its history.
The Library of Congress was founded in 1800 when Washington, DC became the formal capital of the nation. It was originally only intended to be exactly as it was named: a library for members of Congress, and it was housed inside the Capitol Building. During the War of 1812, British forces burned Washington to the ground, and the 3,000 volumes housed in the Library of Congress were burned with it. In 1815, Thomas Jefferson transferred the 6,487 books of his personal library to the Library of Congress to reestablish it.
For visitors to the Library of Congress’ main building on Capitol Hill – not coincidently named for Jefferson himself – the Jefferson collection is a highlight. Those works are kept on display together, behind glass, beautiful to see under a spectacular dome. They are among the few treasures actively displayed for the public to see, along with the Gutenberg Bible, although the collection contains some truly remarkable artifacts.
Before coming, I correspond with Leah Knobel, Public Affairs Specialist here at the Library of Congress. She gives me some specifics of the collection. The Library is home to more than 150 million physical items (books, journals, prints, drawings, and more), housed in three buildings on Capitol Hill and the High Density Storage Facility at Fort Meade. In addition, the collection includes more than 914 million digital files, comprising 21 petabytes of data as of 2022.
Each working day, the Library of Congress receives approximately 15,000 new items, roughly 10,000 of which are added to the collection. (Contrary to popular belief, the Library does not have a copy of every book published in the US, although copyright submissions do make up the majority of new items.) Overall, the collection contains materials in about 470 languages, employs more than 3,000 staff (most of whom are librarians, archivists, and curators), and has teams that actively scour the internet for pertinent digital collections. It is an impressive operation.
After the Civil War, the Library of Congress expanded, and it was determined that it should transform from being the library for Congress to a national library. And so it is today, being open to the public (though advance reservations are necessary to enter the building due to its popularity) and open to any American to access via a library card. The reading room here in the Jefferson Building is able to be used for research – with permission; visitors can only look in – and much of the collection, including things like early presidential correspondences and a draft of the Declaration of Independence, is able to be viewed online by anyone.
While few of these treasures are on display outside of the Gutenberg Bible, the Library of Congress is worth a visit for its physical beauty. The building, which opened in 1897, is a stunning Beaux-Arts temple, fronted on First Street by the Neptune Fountain. (This is the Jefferson Building. The other two are less interesting to look at.)
Inside, vaulted hallways are reminiscent of monasteries, their colorful ceilings well kept up, with marble decor and murals all over.
Besides the room containing the Jefferson collection, two other spaces stand out. First, all traffic will funnel into the Great Hall. Bright and airy, topped with a beautiful glass ceiling, this central chamber stands two floors tall and is supported by slender columns in pairs, with mosaics all around. Photos hardly do it justice, but I’ll try.
Without a doubt, the most beautiful chamber is the reading room, which can be viewed from a doorway on the second floor. It sits directly below the main dome of the building, and a skylight lets in the sun. It is absolutely stunning, and I hope one day to be able to enter.
Take some time to meander down side hallways and into other rooms. Some hold interesting things like old maps, a first edition Benjamin Franklin book, or an exhibit on George and Ira Gershwin. All are beautiful, whether featuring mosaics, carved marble, or just colorful paint jobs.
A visit to the Library of Congress is a treat from an architectural and design standpoint. But it is also a small glimpse into one of the most fascinating governmental agencies out there. It holds a collection that truly represents the history of the nation – and of the world. This is America’s library, one we can all be proud of.
Thank you so much to Leah Knobel for patiently answering my questions about the Library of Congress.
Like it? Pin it!