I’ve always loved libraries, from my days as a kid browsing the shelves after school, to being fascinated with my grandpa’s old books, to my college years and beyond, so the Library of Congress was one of the first places I wanted to visit when I moved to this area. What I didn’t realize was how it is just as much a museum as a functional library.
Unfortunately, the library’s oldest collection of books has been devastated by fire several times, first in 1814 and again in 1851. The second fire ruined many of the over 6,000 books Thomas Jefferson personally donated. An ongoing exhibition of Jefferson’s library in the main Thomas Jefferson Building shows 2,000 original volumes, as well as thousands of replacements and indicates which books are still missing. Other exhibits include a display on women’s suffrage, Rosa Parks, and comic book art. You can even see a copy of the Gutenberg Bible.
Exploring the Early Americas exhibit is a fascinating collection of maps, paintings, and artifacts relating to European colonization in South and Central America. Many of these artifacts are hundreds of years old. I was amazed by the collection of intricately carved Mayan miniature flasks and bottles, which aside from the craftsmanship, look surprisingly modern.
The Thomas Jefferson Building’s Great Hall and Reading Room, built between 1890 and 1897, are filled with sculptures and artwork. Bronze and marble statues of both historic figures and classical figures symbolizing fields of study and thought surround the dome above the Reading Room. A mosaic of the Roman goddess Minerva by Elihu Vedder above the stairs leading to the Visitor’s Gallery is a highlight.
The Library of Congress has evolved considerably over the years, from a small collection of 740 books in the U.S. Capitol in 1800 to over 38 million books, 3.6 million audio recordings, 5.5 million maps, and millions of other research materials today. It’s the premier library of the United States, and any U.S. citizen can attain a library card and conduct research there.
Visitor hours for the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, 101 Independence Ave SE in Washington, DC, are Monday through Saturday, 8:30am to 4:30pm, closed on major holidays. Free public tours are available hourly Monday through Friday, 10:30am to 3:30pm, and on Saturday 10:30am to 2:30pm. Visitors are also free to browse the exhibits on their own.