Why I Can’t Get Enough of the Library of Congress

The Great Hall of the Library of Congress

A Capitol Hill visit almost always begins with a visit to Congress and ends at the Supreme Court. In between and sometimes skipped is the crown jewel of the visit, the Library of Congress. Simply put, the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building is of the most beautiful buildings I have ever walked into.

Though the Library was founded 1800, the Thomas Jefferson Building was opened in 1897 after a significant period of expansion following the Civil War. According to its Wikipedia entry, the building contains “some of the richest public interiors in the United States, is a compendium of the work of classically trained American sculptors and painters of the ‘American Renaissance’, in programs of symbolic content that exhibited the progress of civilization, personified in Great Men and culminating in the American official culture of the Gilded Age.”

The Main Hall

The Great Hall Ceiling

Most people access the Thomas Jefferson Building through the tunnel from the Capitol Building Visitor Center, but you can also access it directly from the street. The first thing you see when you walk into the Thomas Jefferson Building is the Main Hall, which is just absolutely stunning.

You feel as if you have walked into the fantastic ornate Gilded Age. A national monument to learning, the Great Hall is packed with fantastic sculptures, tributes to some of the worlds most brilliant literary minds, and science.

Every sculpture communicates a tribute to learning and history. The simply stunning golds, oranges, reds, combined with the white marble inspire the heart. Some folks walk around the main chamber for hours studying the many late 19th-century masterpieces housed on its walls and ceilings.

The Main Reading Room

The Main Reading Room

Once you are done gawking at the various tributes lining the Great Hall, make sure to venture to the back of the hall on the second floor, where you will find a limited entry to a plexiglass viewing window where you can look into the Main Reading Room. BUT, if you visit during one of the two days a year when this Main Reading Room is open or you get your Library Reader Card during your visit, you can enter the Main Reading Room.

This is quite a treat. The grand windows let in plenty of natural light, again bestowing a sense of timelessness. You feel a sense of privilege as you read, write, and catch up on email. Or simply take in the amazing rotunda and architecture of this fantastic chamber.

The Main Reading Room also serves as the main point of access to the incredible works in the Library, which span three different buildings. However, if you are conducting significant research, you are likely to visit one of the other reading rooms housed in the three Library of Congress buildings. You can see the whole list here.

The Exhibits

A Library of Congress Exhibit

It is fitting that the Library also offers collections and exhibitions to help Americans learn about their country’s history. These exhibitions range from the second founding of the Library with the Jefferson collection to more modern arts and sports collections.

Rich in its own history, the Library of Congress as an institution dates back to the turn of the 19th century when John Adams authorized the first $5000 purchase of books. The British burned the library to the ground when they invaded during the War of 1812 (technically the Capitol Building was burned in 1814), causing Thomas Jefferson to donate more than 6000 books to start the current collection in the Library. However, a second fire in 1851 burned ⅔ of Jefferson’s books.

Jefferson’s Library

Now, some of those surviving books and newer ones form a reconstituted Jeffersonian Collection at the Library of Congress. But while perhaps the richest historical exhibition, there are always several more. 2019 exhibitions include:

  • Exploring the Early Americas
  • Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote (starts in June 2019)
  • Here to Stay: The Legacy of George and Ira Gershwin
  • Hope for America: Performers, Politics and Pop Culture
  • Mapping a Growing Nation: From Independence to Statehood
  • Baseball Americana

Learn more about 2019 exhibitions here: https://www.loc.gov/item/prn-19-002/library-of-congress-announces-2019-exhibitions-and-programs-that-will-explore-americas-change-makers/2019-01-10/

All of the Additional Nooks and Crannies

When you visit the Thomas Jefferson Building, look up. Every ceiling is a treat.

There are several galleries and pavilions that adorn the Great Hall. Each of these galleries and pavilions has several artworks and a rich history to examine.

For example, the northwest pavilion features relief sculptures by Bela Lyon Pratt (1867-1917). The sculptures represent Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. Murals by William De Leftwich Dodge (1867-1935) ornament the walls and ceiling.

One of the side passages in the Library of Congress.

The Poetry Gallery features murals by the artist Henry Oliver Walker (1843-1929). According to the Library of Congress, “The largest mural, at the far end, depicts Lyric Poetry. Before a distant vista figures are gathered in a woodland scene with a tumbling brook at its center, a wild and natural scene that might inspire a poet. The figure standing boldly forward in the center represents “Lyric Poetry,” crowned with a wreath of laurel and touching the strings of a lyre.”

The entire Thomas Jefferson Building is a worthy expenditure of time, rivaled by the best of the nearby Smithsonian museums. Make sure to see the Library of Congress on your next visit to DC. You can also take the Thomas Jefferson Building Online Tour.

All photos provided by Geoff Livingston Photography.