On April 24, 1800, President John Adams signed a bill providing for the transfer of the United States’ capital from its temporary home in Philadelphia to the District of Columbia–a move set in motion a decade earlier in the Residence Act of 1790. The bill also appropriated $5,000 to obtain “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress… and for fitting up a suitable apartment to contain them..”
The first Library of Congress died in flames only 14 years after it had been established. Housed in a wing of the Capitol building, the small, 3,000-book collection fell victim to British torches in 1814 during the burning of Washington.
Although he did not create the Library, Thomas Jefferson–for whom the current main building is named–saved it. A month after the capital was burned, he offered to sell his personal collection to the government. Congress accepted Jefferson’s offer in January 1815, appropriating $23,950 to purchase 6,487 of his books. Jefferson had spent 50 years gathering his collection. He was in debt (he almost always was) and made a good pitch for the universality that the present Library of Congress is now famous for:
“I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection,” he wrote. “[T]here is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”
The Library of Congress was rebuilt, eventually, in marble. Fear of fire forged a building that will not easily burn. When the Thomas Jefferson Building opened–situated on the corner of 1st and Independence SE, east of the Capitol building–it was the first electrified public building in the city. The year was 1897.
One hundred years after Jefferson offered up his collection, the Library has grown immensely. Its “more than 158 million items includes more than 36 million cataloged books and other print materials in 460 languages.” The Library’s resources are available to the public–to request materials (and read them on-site) all you need is a reader card.
Twice a year–on President’s Day in February and Columbus Day in October–the Library of Congress opens itself up further. There’s no one researching on those days, but anyone and everyone can wander into the main reading room and down into the card catalog. Photographers, usually barred from wandering freely, crouch in corners snapping away.
The Great Hall is almost indescribable in its complexity and universality. One corner will tell you “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty” and the ceiling in another spot reminds you, in Cassius’ words that “the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” There’s Minerva, presiding over a stairway, and one of the marble babies is holding a phone. To describe the Great Hall in the language of today: it is filled with Easter Eggs. The good news is that you can visit the Great Hall whenever you like.
And then there’s the Main Reading Room. The real value there is the reference librarians, but the ceiling is worth seeing too.
It’s the kind of room you feel smarter standing at the center of. Looking up you see a circle of figures, in the lantern at the center of the dome is a woman–Human Understanding–“in the act of lifting the veil of ignorance and looking forward to intellectual progress. ” Around her are 12 figures representing great civilizations or eras which, when the library was constructed in the 1890s, were viewed as having contributed the most to the development of Western civilization: Egypt (Written Records), Judea (Religion), Greece (Philosophy), Rome (Administration), Islam (Physics), The Middle Ages (Modern Languages), Italy (Fine Arts), Germany (Printing) , Spain (Discovery), England (Literature), France (Emancipation), and America (Science).
If you’re in Washington make sure to visit the Library–the Great Hall is a glory to behold and the viewing balcony will let you get a glimpse of the Main Reading Room. Remember, on two days a year it becomes a (photographer’s) playground. In 2016, the lucky days are February 15 and October 10.
More pictures from my visit can be found here.