The Library of Congress is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places owned by the American people. If you (like me as of last week!) haven’t yet visited the main foyer of the Thomas Jefferson building (on 1st St. SE between Independence and East Capitol) to glimpse a Gutenberg Bible and marvel at the intricate mosaics, let me tell you, now is the time!
The Library in its entirety is home to 142 million items, including books, film, and objects like slides and photographs. While some of the collections are located in the three main buildings in downtown DC, most are stored in 650 miles of shelves underground and off-site in Maryland and Virginia. Books travel up via conveyor belt (or come from further away) and are delivered by hand by Library staffers to the eager researchers awaiting them.
But if you’re looking for a deeper adventure into our country’s Alexandria (indeed the Library boasts “the largest collection anywhere of the world’s knowledge”) and want to set yourself apart from the other 1.6 million people who visit every year, take 20 minutes out of your day off to acquire your Reader Identification Card.
To get your Reader’s Card, visit Room LM 140 of the James Madison building (Independence Ave SE, between 1st and 2nd). There, you will go through a 3-step process including on-line registration and the printing of your card. The card is valid for two years and can be obtained by any researcher/student over the age of 16 with a government ID.
Having a Reader’s Card will get you access into the bowels of the Library and into its approximately 20 different reading rooms that are not accessible to the public. Ranging from the Children’s Literature Room to the American Folklife Center to the Asian Reading Room, each room has staff who are deeply familiar with the subjects of those rooms and able to help you delve into whatever topic you could possibly be researching.
But the crème de la crème of our Library is the Main Reading Room, which is home to a tremendous collection of reference materials and is the starting point for most researchers. It is a fantastic room, organized as a series of large desks around a center reference area. Above, on the ceiling, are personified images of the civilizations that have helped America become what it is today—the Egyptians gave us written records, the Greeks gave us philosophy, Islam gave us physics, the Italians gave us culture, etc. And of course, the Main Reading Room is intimately quiet and scholarly—the perfect place for cracking open a novel on a given afternoon.
If you visit the Library of Congress, keep in mind that it is not open on Sundays, and reading rooms have their own schedules (check online for details). You are not allowed to bring book bags or purses into the rooms, but there is a coat check in the front where you can leave your bags.
(Note: Pictures of the Main Reading Room are not permitted, so I leave it to you to quietly walk in and take a gaping look around before you begin your reading for the day…!)