Library of Congress Review – Beautiful and Full of Surprises

Recently, when in Washington, D.C. accompanying my husband who was attending an engineering meeting, I had the opportunity to join a tour of the Library of Congress.  I had wanted to visit for many years and last year would have gone but the government was shut down at that time.  I was thrilled to finally be going there.

 

 

Our group started out early enough to be one of the first tours.  Sara was our tour guide extraordinaire. I had always heard about the library being a fantastic place for research, but I had not known about its many other attributes.  For one thing, it is beautiful, outside and in.  Its resources are vast and  “Today's Library of Congress is an unparalleled world resource. The collection of more than 158 million items includes more than 36 million cataloged books and other print materials in 460 languages; more than 69 million manuscripts; the largest rare book collection in North America; and the world's largest collection of legal materials, films, maps, sheet music and sound recordings.” It is the largest library in the world with many sections and resources.  And an underground tunnel accesses to the Capitol Building.

 

On its website, the story of The Library of Congress unfolds. It was “established by an act of Congress in 1800 when President John Adams signed a bill providing for the transfer of the seat of government from Philadelphia to the new capital city of Washington. The legislation described a reference library for Congress only, containing "such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress - and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein…"

 

Established with $5,000 appropriated by the legislation, the original library was housed in the new Capitol until August 1814, when invading British troops set fire to the Capitol Building, burning and pillaging the contents of the small library.

 

 

Within a month, retired President Thomas Jefferson offered his personal library as a replacement. Jefferson had spent 50 years accumulating books, "putting by everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable in every science"; his library was considered to be one of the finest in the United States. In offering his collection to Congress, Jefferson anticipated controversy over the nature of his collection, which included books in foreign languages and volumes of philosophy, science, literature, and other topics not normally viewed as part of a legislative library. He wrote, "I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer."

 

In January 1815, Congress accepted Jefferson's offer, appropriating $23,950 for his 6,487 books, and the foundation was laid for a great national library. The Jeffersonian concept of universality, the belief that all subjects are important to the library of the American legislature, is the philosophy and rationale behind the comprehensive collecting policies of today's Library of Congress.

 

 

Ainsworth Rand Spofford, Librarian of Congress from 1864 to 1897, applied Jefferson's philosophy on a grand scale and built the Library into a national institution. Spofford was responsible for the copyright law of 1870, which required all copyright applicants to send to the Library two copies of their work. This resulted in a flood of books, pamphlets, maps, music, prints, and photographs. Facing a shortage of shelf space at the Capitol, Spofford convinced Congress of the need for a new building, and in 1873 Congress authorized a competition to design plans for the new Library.

 

In 1886, after many proposals and much controversy, Congress authorized construction of a new Library building in the style of the Italian Renaissance in accordance with a design prepared by Washington architects John L. Smithmeyer and Paul J. Pelz.

 

The Congressional authorization was successful because of the hard work of two key Senators: Daniel W. Voorhees (Indiana), who served as chairman of the Joint Committee from 1879 to 1881, and Justin S. Morrill (Vermont), chairman of Senate Committee on Buildings and Grounds.

 

In 1888, General Thomas Lincoln Casey, chief of the Army Corps of Engineers, was placed in charge of construction. His chief assistant was Bernard R. Green, who was intimately involved with the building until his death in 1914. Beginning in 1892, a new architect, Edward Pearce Casey, the son of General Casey, began to supervise the interior work, including sculptural and painted decoration by more than 50 American artists.

 

When the Library of Congress building opened its doors to the public on November 1, 1897, it was hailed as a glorious national monument and "the largest, the costliest, and the safest" library building in the world.”

 

Today's Library of Congress is an unparalleled world resource with a collection of more than 158 million items includes more than 36 million cataloged books and other print materials in 460 languages; more than 69 million manuscripts; the largest rare book collection in North America; and the world's largest collection of legal materials, films, maps, sheet music and sound recordings.

 

From our tour, the standouts were the room containing The Thomas Jefferson Library, the Gutenberg Bible, the artwork everywhere and the reading room where important research takes place.

 

 

Our group continued on through the tunnel that connects the library to the Capitol Building where our limited time allowed only a cursory exploration of some of the fascinating historic displays and movies but no time to climb to the dome.

 

 

Returning home I learned I missed something very special there, because, The Library of Congress has acquired the American Ballet Theatre’s vast archives. Others may want to enjoy the "American Ballet Theatre: Touring the Globe for 75 Years" which is displayed in the foyer of the Performing Arts Reading Room in the Library’s James Madison Memorial Building, 101 Independence Ave. S.E., Washington, D.C. The exhibit is free and open to the public from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, starting Thursday, Aug. 14. Also starting Aug. 14, the exhibit can be viewed online at Library of Congress Website.

The exhibition will close on Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015. It will then travel to Los Angeles, opening at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in its Library of Congress Ira Gershwin Gallery in March 2015 and running through August 2015.

 

Photos: B. Keer

 

 

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