Presidents’ Day at the Library of Congress


Gutenberg Bible at the Library of Congress (source:

I’ve been to the Library of Congress many times before and always loved it. The Library was created back in 1800 when the government moved from Philadelphia to Washington, which makes it the oldest federal cultural institution in the U.S. It was initially housed in various parts of the Capitol and not until 1897 did it gain its own separate space known today as the Jefferson Building.

The Great Hall welcomes visitors with two grand marble staircases on each side with larger-than-life female figure holding a torch of electric light, and colorful mosaics devoted to the disciplines such as Theology and Law. This light-filled, soaring space really dazzles with unique works created by nearly 50 American painters and sculptors. And just beyond the point where you pass under the grand “Library of Congress” sign above a tall archway resides a true gem of the Library: Gutenberg Bible. It is one of only three complete copies printed on treated calfskin, or vellum, that survived to this day (the other two are in Paris and London).

But today was a special day. Today I got to see the part of the Library that normally is only visible to non-researcher visitors from behind the glass: the Main Reading Room. This is the only view of the Room that most people get, many of them (like me on several occasions) feeling rushed as the guards try to move the viewing line along. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a magnificent vantage point but today I learned there is so much more to see on the other side of that glass – and from the ground level.

Twice a year, the Reading Room is welcoming all during a special public open house – and photography is allowed! Presidents’ Day is one of those two special dates. The space is magnificent indeed! Eight giant marble columns are topped by 10-foot-high allegorical female figures representing Religion, Commerce, History, Art, Philosophy, Poetry, Law and Science. Slightly below 16 bronze statues stand on the balustrades of the galleries, recognizing thinkers and artists from Herodotus to Shakespeare whose contribuions belong to the areas of human pursuit represented by the allegorical statues. And right above the entrance there is a famous Father Time clock with a life-size figure of Time personified as an old man with a scythe.

Then there is the focal point of the Room and the entire Library building: a gold-plated dome. Its center features the allegory of Humanity removing the veil of ignorance by looking toward knowledge and intellectual pursuit (I’d say with mixed success to date =)

Another unique space adjacent to the Main Reading Room that only rarely allows the outsiders in is the Main Card Catalogue. 22,000 drawers in countless rows hold 22 million cards that until fairly recently were the key to finding individual books in the Library’s vast collection. Most cards are typewritten but some turn of the century ones are neatly spelled out in a librarian’s careful script. Of course I had to look up something Polish! I looked under “A” for poems by Adam Asnyk and sure enough there were several collections. As it turns out, Asnyk died the same year the Library opened – 1897 – a neat coincidence.

All in all, a perfect way to spend Presidents’ Day…

Library of Congress today

Library of Congress at the turn of the century

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  1. Pingback: Visiting the Library of Congress Reading Room | Transplanted Tatar

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