In Libraries on June 7, 2011 at 4:03 am

After spending many hours pouring over research in its hallowed halls, it’s high time I review the visitor experience at the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress is famous as the building that holds a copy of every book ever written. That, I have learned, is complete twaddle; it has no such thing and is very upfront about the fact. They hardly need to feel inferior though, because it is still the biggest library in the world, and processes (on average) around 10,000 new items a day. TEN THOUSAND! Think about it – this library takes on more books than you and all your English teachers could read in your lifetime every single day. The very thought of that much reading material makes my head go all fuzzy.

Lucky for me, the Visitor Centre brings it down a level to where we non-librarian mortals can deal with it. I must say, it was nice to be allowed in the front of the building as opposed to trudging round the back to the researcher’s entrance, and not only because it’s about 17 miles closer to civilization. Look at this for a lobby:

Now, phototaking inside the library is understandably limited, but it’s a pretty brilliant experience, and a definite must-see for anyone passing through town. as well as the obligatory exhibition on the Constitution (as seen in every museum/ library/ Dunkin’ Donuts in DC), you can also see the genesis of the current library with Thomas Jefferson’s original collection of books, displayed artfully and accompanied by interactives that were a) all working and b) all awesome, because you can explore every single book on the shelves without ever getting your grubby mitts on the books themselves. I’m an ardent fan of the real deal when it comes to books (I refuse to entertain the idea of a kindle, and will have a ceremonial burning of all such devices when I’m queen), but I’d much rather these precious tomes be protected, and the virtual version of Jefferson’s collection was actually a pretty fun alternative. You can also see a rather cool collection of Civil War portraits at the moment (although it isn’t permanent), which was unexpected and intriguing.

You also get to go to the viewing gallery, which looks over the main reading room of the Jefferson Adams building, and it is mighty impressive. Strictly no photos, and even I wasn’t willing to bend the rules on that, because although you’re in a soundproof (ish) goldfish bowl about 75 feet above the people actually using the library to read, the rebounding of flash after flash is really, really annoying to those poor buggers down there. So please, on behalf of Academia, don’t do it. Admire the incredible view of the domed roof and miles of bookstacks, but buy a postcard of it. The bleeding eyes of the researchers will thank you.

Make no mistake, the LoC (as we locals call it) is a flippin’ leviathan – it is too huge to comprehend. We didn’t get chance to see everything and I may well go back for the tour, but I have the luxury of time. If you also have that luxury in DC, then my top tip is register – it’s free and it doesn’t take long, just a quick sojourn to the Madison building. As well as fitting a cheeky bit of research into a holiday (I see that face. Stop judging me for my nerdness.) it means you can have a proper explore of the subterranean world of tunnels linking the three buildings on Capitol Hill. It’s like a city down there!  And, most importantly of all, you can experience the greatest pumpkin latte available to mankind in the staff coffee shop under the Madison building. Library of Congress = Library of congYES!


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