Friday, October 2, 2009

Washington 4: The Library of Congress

D.C. was wonderful, but this was the highlight. I'm so glad we deviated from our loosely constructed itinerary to go inside. Plus the marble floors felt really good on my tired feet when I slipped off my shoes for a minute.

First of all, the building is just chock full of gorgeous architecture. Putti and mosaics and Corinthian columns and stained glass, everywhere you look. Stunning. It's a fitting home for all those wonderful books.

We saw some beautiful old illuminated Bibles. We saw rough drafts of the Declaration of Independence and letters where Jefferson complained that it had been botched by committee editing. We stood on the balcony of the reading room and pressed our noses to the glass, imagining how wonderful it would be to spend the afternoon in that beautiful space. We marveled at learning that the books are mostly stored off-site but can still be retrieved for you on the same day you request them, and that they are shelved (get this!) by height, to save shelf space.

And we walked through Thomas Jefferson's library, which is arranged in curving glass cases that stand away from the walls, so you can see the spines and then walk around to the other side and see the pages, too. I missed being able to smell that intoxicating old paper smell, but I guess it's understandable that they need to be protected.

The library is actually a reconstruction, not entirely composed of Jefferson's actual books, and it was a bit jarring to see modern bindings of some of the titles peeking out from the stacks. About 2,000 of the books were originally Jefferson's own books. About two-thirds of the original books were destroyed in a fire in 1851--how horrible to think of 4,487 of his books burned up!--so they are being replaced. Some replacements were already in the Library of Congress collection, some came as gifts, and several hundred have been purchased with donated funds.

Wouldn't being in charge of that project be a fun job? Talk about shopping for a worthy cause!

Jefferson kept his books in categories of Memory, Reason, and Imagination, and then divided those broad categories into chapters by subject. He put History, Philosophy and Fine Arts in the Imagination category. It was great fun to walk along the display and peer at the titles, checking out the various categories and what was filed where. I imagine Jefferson probably knew right where each book was, too, back in the day.

The library is displayed in a splendid room with a high domed, coffered ceiling, and paintings of the Four Seasons of Man high on the walls. They keep it quite dim, no doubt for preservation purposes. We tiptoed through like we were in church, quiet and awed, but soothed and comfortable.

Then it was off to the gift shop, where we discovered something very surprising about the Library of Congress: the National Gallery has better bookmarks.


  1. I was pleasantly surprised at how beautiful this building was. I could have stayed there much longer than time allowed. Isn't that always the way?

  2. Great libraries are just so wonderful.


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