Library of Congress

Located at 101 Independence Avenue S.E., the Library of Congress serves as the nation’s largest repository of reference and research material for members of Congress and their staff, as well as for an estimated two million visitors each year. The idea for a Congressional library of law, politics, history, and geography began with James Madison in 1783. However, it wasn’t formally established until John Adams signed a Congressional Act in 1800 that provided for some 3,000 volumes of reference material to be used solely by members of Congress. After the collection was destroyed when the British burned the Capitol in 1814, Thomas Jefferson’s personal collection of 6,487 books was purchased for $23,495 a year later. The diversity of subject material from philosophy and literature to foreign languages and religion in these volumes reflects Jefferson’s beliefs that Congress should be well versed in every branch of knowledge as a part of their legislative process. Ainsworth Spofford, the Librarian of Congress from 1864 to 1897, introduced the national copyright law, which brought massive amounts of material to the Capitol facility for copyright. This in itself necessitated the authorization for a new facility in 1886 to be designed by architects Smithmeyer and Pelz, with construction and interior work by General Casey and his son Edward. The first building opened to the public in 1897; its unsurpassed grandeur and size, elaborate exterior and impressive interior artwork represented American culture, design, and style at its finest.

Today, the vast wealth of material (over 530 miles of shelf space) is housed in three separate buildings on Capitol Hill – the Jefferson, which opened in 1897, the Adams, opening in 1939, and the Madison Memorial Building in 1980. The Library of Congress has over 134 million items, which includes over 29 million catalogued books and printed material in 460 languages, 50 million manuscripts, the largest collection of rare books in North America, and the world’s largest collections of films, legal materials, maps, sheet music, and sound recordings. The three buildings form an impressive “Temple of the Arts,” which is in keeping with Jefferson’s beliefs in universal knowledge. Their interior design holds as much significance, perhaps, as the material contained within. However, there is so much to include in the discussion of each building that only an overview will be provided in this article.

At the entrance to the main Jefferson building, we find Roland Perry’s sculpture of the fountain and scene of Neptune’s court, the sea gods, and creatures from the sea. Thirty-three heads, representing various ethnic groups, surround the first floor windows of the building. Once inside the Great Hall, we walk across marble floors and the centerpiece of the sun with inlaid brass Zodiac symbols to the double staircase. The figures of Minerva at War and Minerva at Peace stand on marble pillars at the base, and cherubs, representing occupations and pursuits of daily life, adorn the railings. Names of famous authors are inscribed on tablets above the windows and on the walls, while famous quotations, paintings, poetry and mosaic panels, and medallions are displayed along the corridors, in the lobbies, and above the entrances to reading rooms. Eight statues of the main reading room symbolize the eight categories of knowledge -philosophy, art, science, religion, law, history, and commerce – with inscriptions of famous quotations relative to the subject. Adding to this are 16 bronze statues of men who represent accomplishments in each field of knowledge, and forty-eight state seals are displayed in the stained glass windows of the reading room. Highlighting the interior dome are Edward Blashfield’s murals of the 12 major countries or eras that had an effect or contributed to American civilization.

Much of the more modern interior of the Adams building reflects the Art Deco period introduced at the 1925 Paris Exposition with formica, glass tubing, and metal work. Figures at the entrance doors depict various heroes and gods from historical writings, and Ezra Winter’s murals on the walls of the North Reading Room display the characters from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The Madison building is recognized as a permanent memorial to our 4th President James Madison, as the father of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Inscribed on panels throughout the building are the famous words and quotations from Madison.

There are a number of research centers and reading rooms in the Library, which focus on a variety of subjects from poetry, art, and children’s literature to international collections, newspapers, and rare books. The Manuscript Division is visited frequently by researchers and students, where over 50 million items are kept in 11,000 separate collections. Featured collections include the papers of 23 presidents, from Washington to Coolidge, the Gutenberg Bible on parchment, and Buddhist scripture from 770 A.D. In addition to Washington’s inaugural address, Lincoln’s Gettysburg, the paper tape of the first telegraphic message, and Bell’s sketch of the first telephone, there are over 800,000 items in the rare book collections. There are important military and Congressional documents, as well as papers from reformers and other people and groups who played a part in our non-political, scientific, and cultural history.

Other areas of interest in the Library of Congress include the Africa and Middle East Division and the American Folklife Center. Exhibitions at the Library have included American Treasures from history, and ongoing such as Bob Hope, Gerry Mulligan and his jazz, and an extensive collection of Maps in our Lives. Free to the public throughout the year are symposiums, film screenings, and lectures on these exhibits and various subjects. The Library sponsors a season of performing arts events, the Screening Shakespeare series in the Mary Pickford Theater in the Madison building, and American Folklife Concerts in the Coolidge auditorium of the Jefferson, in addition to appointing the Poet Laureate of the United States each year.

Upcoming events open to the public include the annual Book Festival on September 29 at the National Mall, hosted by First Lady Laura Bush, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Festival will have presentations by over 70 authors, illustrators, and poets, interactive activities in various Pavilions, and feature stories and interviews from the Veterans History Project.

Building Hours: Madison & Adams – Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Saturdays, Madison – 8:30 to 6:30, Adams — 8:30 to 5:30. Jefferson — Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Reading room hours vary — Ph: 202-707-5387.
Free admission. Closed stack system — material must be requested — cannot be checked out.
Visitors Info: Ph: 202-707-8000. Handicap accessible and assistance available.
Tours: Monday — Friday, 10:30, 11:30, 1:30, 2:30 and 3:30; Saturday — 10:30, 11:30, 1:30, and 2:30. Visitors Center, Ground Floor, Jefferson building. Ph: 202-707-9779
Dining: Located primarily in the Madison Building.

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