Sunday, July 23, 2017


Just across the street from the U.S. Capitol is a building whose name I've always been familiar with, but which I knew little to nothing about: the Library of Congress.
U.S. Capitol as seen from the steps of the Library
The main building of the Library of Congress
The Library has an interesting history of stops and starts:

1783:  James Madison suggests creating a congressional library.

1800:  The Library of Congress is signed into existence by President John Adams when the capital moves from New York to Washington, D.C. A total of 740 books and 3 maps ordered from Europe constitute the first collection, which is housed in the capitol building and is meant to service the reference needs of Congress. 

1814:  Invading British troops destroy the Library of Congress and its collection, which has grown to 3,000 volumes. Thomas Jefferson almost immediately offers to sell Congress his personal library as the base for a new collection. (Why didn't he just give it to them?)

1815:  Congress designates $23,950 to purchase his 6,487 books. ($3.69/book is a pretty good deal for Jefferson in 1815.) The library continues to grow.

1851:  A disastrous fire destroys 35,000  of the library's 60,000 or so books, among which are two-thirds of Jefferson's collection. Congress replaces the number of lost books.

1865:  By the end of the Civil War, there are about 80,000 volumes in the library. The next decade sees tremendous growth, both in the number of books in the library and in the power of the organization itself when the library is given jurisdiction over all copyright registration.

1876:  The Library of Congress has over 300,000 volumes and begins construction of the present main library building. 

1897: With a collection of over 840,000 volumes, the Library moves into the Beaux Arts style Thomas Jefferson Building.

Today: The library has more than 16 million books and more than 120 million other items and collections held in four distinct buildings. The primary library, however, is still the Thomas Jefferson Building, and it is a "gasper."

This first set of photos is from the lobby, the Great Hall, and the stairs area.

Nod to the American poet
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) 

Nod to the British poet Robert Browning (1812-1889)

Nod to the American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

I had no idea this place existed. Wow.

We waited in line on the stairs leading to the famous Main Reading Room, the access point for those actually wanting to use the library's materials. To enter this room on the ground level, however, one must have a Reader Identification Card, which requires an advance application process.

Statues lining the observation deck gaze down at the scholars below. I think if you try to plagiarize or speak above a whisper in this room, one of them will swoop down and crush you:

These sixteen bronze statues illustrate eight characteristic features of civilized life and thought:
Art: Michelangelo Buonarroti and Ludwig von Beethoven
Commerce: Christopher Columbus and Robert Fulton
History: Herodotus and Edward Gibbon
Law: Solon and James Kent
Philosophy: Plato and Francis Bacon
Poetry: Homer and William Shakespeare
Religion: Moses and St. Paul
Science: Sir Isaac Newton and Joseph Henry

The reading floor is a huge circle. Just beyond the perimeter, we could catch a glimpse of the massive collection:

We were only allowed a few minutes on the observation deck, but there was still plenty to see in the rest of the library.

Are these both Jefferson, maybe during and after his bath?
From "Ode on a Grecian Urn," John Keats, 1819

From As You Like It, Act II Scene I

One of the side rooms had a special exhibit that included an excerpt from a letter written by Cortes to King Charles V. Sounds like Montezuma was quite the guy:

 Another side room had a very interesting exhibit about World War I:

I was especially intrigued by this apocalyptic painting of the Statue of Liberty in ruins with New York City in flames in the background.  It was painted in 1918 by Joseph Pennell and has the caption: "Lest liberty perish from the face of the earth--buy bonds."

Having just re-read Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson, this poster caught my eye:

I learned that the American Library Association and the Library of Congress created a lending library and reading room system during World War I. From 1917 to 1920, the ALA and its affiliates distributed almost ten million books and magazines and created thirty-six libraries for military personnel in the United States and Europe.

 I found this image a little bizarre. What do you think?

My favorite exhibit was a re-creation of the book collection that Thomas Jefferson sold to the Library of Congress.

In 1814, when Jefferson offered his collection to the Library of Congress, it was the largest personal collection of books in the country.
As I understand it, they are trying to accumulate the very same books that were part of Jefferson's original collection, and they are arranging them in the order Jefferson described.

Of course, this is the man who said, "I cannot live without books," and so he immediately began to rebuild his collection, amassing several thousand books that were sold at auction in 1829, a few years after his death, to help repay his debts.

The ceiling in Jefferson's library:

Another special exhibit I really liked was a collection of courtroom sketches from trials that did not allow photographers. It was a fascinating way to view some of the major trials that occurred during my lifetime:
Fear of a defendant with AIDS in 1984
(Note that the defendant and those who need to
touch him are all wearing surgical masks.)

The Oklahoma City bombing hearing, 1996

World Trade Center bombing trial of
Mohammed A. Salameh, 1993

Martha Stewart on trial for insider trading, 2004

Jackie Onassis and the paparazzi, 1982

J. K. Rowling sues a web developer for copyright
infringement of the Harry Potter series, 2008

O. J. Simpson's civil trial for the murder of
Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, 1996

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall,
sometime between 1967-1978

John Hinckley, Jr., on trial for his attempted
assassination of President Ronald Reagan, 1985

The jury for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, assassin, 1968
(The jury included two African American men.)

James Earl Ray attempts to recant his confession for
the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., 1974

I would love to go back to the Library of Congress. It would be fun to get a Reader Identification Card so that I could do a little research in the Main Reading Room. I'd love to see whatever special exhibits they have. However, I would go back just to stand in awe of the architecture and gawk at the decor. I think it is the most magnificent government building I've ever seen in the United States.


  1. The main hall is quite the gilded lily. The combination of arches and color is amazing. But my favorite was Jefferson's collection of books. I think it is very cool that they are trying to re-create it.

  2. I love libraries and have seen some fabulous ones around the world - but Library of Congress has to be my absolute favorite - both for its contents and architecture.

  3. This has got to be one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. What an incredible history!