Visiting the Library of Congress

The original access to the main reading room--the youth on the left is learning and the elder on the right is meant to represent wisdom.

The Library of Congress owes the bulk of it’s establishment to the library of Thomas Jefferson, which was a rather special and extensive library at the time.  Sadly for TJ, it also contributed to his bankruptcy and, thus, his need to sell it off.  Congress did him a huge favor when they purchased it.  When it was in his library at Monticello he divided it into three categories: Memory (Historical interests), Imagination (Literature), Research (Scientific interests).  One of the exhibits in the current building, Jefferson (completed in the 1890s) features a replica of his collection–with most of the books being editions from the years he purchased them.  (Many of the original books have been lost as the Library of Congress had some fires in its early years.)

The artistry is most evident from the floor above the main entrance. Above is a skylight made of stained glass surrounded by aluminum--at the time more valuable than gold!

The main building, called the Jefferson building, is a stunning building of marble, mosaics, statuary, gilded gold and stained glass.  50 artists were recruited from the Chicago World’s Fair to the work on a voluntary basis!  At the end of the project there was a $500,000 surplus, out of which $300,000 was paid to these workers (the rest went back into the Treasury).  The building reflects, as our guide explained, the Eurocentrism that was popular in America during the 1809s: historic men from Western Civilization are depicted–particularly those noted for their love of knowledge and learning–and idealized women are also placed throughout representing abstract ideas–they are not historic unless they represent classical deities.

The L.O.C. does restoration of their books and have even found a method by means of a milk-magnesium vapor to whiten pages that have yellowed with age–a process they predict lasts up to 240 years.  Given the importance of some of their collection, such as a Gutenberg Bible, these processes are essential for the upkeep of the library.  The library is first and foremost a collection for Congress, but is open to researchers who may obtain library cards in the neighboring Adams building.  One requests the books and they are brought from their positions to researchers.  While there are various reading rooms–many devoted to a particular field–I have never been able to turn down the opportunity to sit in the main reading room, except when I was researching in the rare books collection, from which books do not leave to any other reading room.

During World War II Hollywood stars took orders and bussed tables for American soldiers, featured on the wall behind Bob Hope.

For the visitor, as opposed to the researcher, there are always exhibits open to the public and tours are available to explain the building and the collection’s history.  Another fun feature for younger audiences (and a few adults, as well) are the Passports to Knowledge that are available from the information desks.  These Passports provide information to guide you through the building but also have a bar-code that can be inserted in to consoles located throughout the exhibits.  By typing in your information, you can download it onto myLOC.gov and access images and information at home.  With exhibits featuring the New World and American culture especially, this is a really cool feature giving you access to what you have seen on your visit.

Past exhibits at the L.O.C. include:

EXPLORING THE AMERICAS:

Northwest Gallery, 2nd Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building

CREATING THE UNITED STATES:

Southwest Pavilion, 2nd Floor, Thomas Jefferson Bldg

THOMAS JEFFERSON’S LIBRARY:

Southwest Pavilion, 2nd Floor, Thomas Jefferson Bldg

HOPE FOR AMERICA: PERFORMANCE, POLITICS AND POP CULTURE:

Bob Hope Gallery of American Entertainment, Ground Floor, Thomas Jefferson Bldg

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3 Comments

Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Historian's Journal, Travel

3 responses to “Visiting the Library of Congress

  1. xanthia

    this is my favorite post yet weeeeeeeeeeeee

  2. xanthia

    this is my favorite post yet

  3. Pingback: Researching at the Library of Congress | Brush off the dust! History now!

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