We wondered what could possibly be interesting about a library. Sure, it’s the largest library in the ENTIRE WORLD, but what an amazing building! We entered the Library of Congress through the US Capitol Tunnel (avoiding a 2nd security check) and were absolutely stunned when we walked up the steps to the Great Hall and it’s soaring barrel vaults, marble columns and breath-taking mosaics. Words simply do not adequately describe the interior. It’s like being transported to the Sistine Chapel!
After craning our necks at the ceiling for a bit, we walked back down to the lower level to wait for our tour stickers (no reservations are offered- it’s first come-first served). So we browsed though the gift shop and watched an introductory movie while we waited. A full-sized copy of the Declaration of Independence on parchment $6- not bad!
The tour guide first took us to the center of the Great Hall and explained the meaning of many of the carvings and mosaics. The Great Hall is absolutely massive and the building was crowded, so it was difficult to hear everything she said unless you were right on top of her. (Is it ironic that the Library should take a hint from the US Capitol tour system and offer headsets to tours, and the Capitol should take lessons from the Library’s tour system on how to give a proper tour?)
After the Great Hall we went into the Bible Gallery and saw the Giant Bible of Mainz (handwritten) and the Guttenberg Bible (the first printed Bible). You cannot tell which is which!...The tour moved up to the Mezzanine where the guide explained that the Library of Congress was the first building to be constructed with electrical wiring. One can only imagine how intimidating this building was to foreign dignitaries and common folk back in the day.
The tour ended with a balcony look at the grand and impressive Main Reading Room. The balcony is encased in glass and photography isn’t allowed. I suppose this is to prevent harsh flashing from deteriorating the priceless books. Although, from that height, the books were in stacks several hundred feet away. (I snuck a few flash-less pictures of the room. I couldn’t help myself!)
You don’t actually get to see many books while in the Library, as you would expect. If you want (and you can) personally see any of the 250 million piece in the Library. You must be 16 years old, obtain a Reader’s Card from the Adam’s Building (?), and provide a legitimate purpose for you to view the material. It’s an entire process that involved a lot of walking and a lot of waiting.
The most amazing exhibit at the Library of Congress is Thomas Jefferson’s entire personal collection of books. Nearly 6,500 volumes in all- a significant number of personally owned books at the time- were sold by Jefferson to Congress after the British burned the original Library in the Capitol building in 1812- an amazing mix of subjects, from Beekeeping to Philosophy. The bookshelves are encased in glass and you’re not allowed to touch or take photographs (Oops I did it again! Flash-less, in my defense. See accompanying photos.)
We had a difficult time locating the Waldseemuller Map (the map that named America), but once we did, we were able to navigate around the document with its accompanying computer screens. It was amazing to see the distorted perspective of the land.
Overall, the Library of Congress was an excellent experience! I wouldn’t recommend it for young children, but the architecture alone is enough to amaze anyone over 10. Plan to walk a lot of steps and spend 2-3 hours exploring the different exhibit halls. Finally, check out the LOC website before you visit. The online information is ever-changing, as the Library is in the multi-decade process of making everything they have available for viewing online. TWO THUMBS UP TO CONGRESS FOR THIS ONE!
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