Talk about serendipity…as I was leaving the U.S. Capitol, I saw a sign directing visitors via a tunnel to the Library of Congress. I had vaguely considered taking a look around the famous building, but this bolt from the blue seemed to be a clear indication of what I needed to do next. And boy, was I ever glad I did! Washington D.C. is full of beautiful, historical spots, but this library has quickly become one of my personal favorites.
My good fortune continued when I learned that a tour of the building was going to start in just fifteen minutes. In the short film at the beginning we learned that the library’s many assets include: the contents of Lincoln’s pocket the night he was assassinated; a copy of the Declaration of Independence; the world’s oldest Koran; a map used by Lewis and Clark; and over 23 million books, just to scratch the surface. No wonder they’re having quite the time putting all of their resources up on the Internet.
Our guide Annetta told us that fires plagued library holdings twice in its history. The first in 1814 destroyed everything. But Thomas Jefferson came to the rescue by selling the government his fifty-year collection of 6500 books for $24,000. As bad luck would have it, two-thirds of his books then perished in a chimney fire in 1851. The current building, named for our third president, was completed in 1897 and is said to be the safest library in the world. Fingers crossed! The first room you come to is covered with mosaics on the arched ceiling. I thought I had been magically transported to Europe. But no, this is an American library, fashioned by American artisans. Just next door we got to see two of the finest treasures of the library: the giant hand-written Bible of Mainz from 1453 and a Gutenberg Bible created the following year and bought by the library for $1½ million in the 1930s!
We then went into the elaborate Great Hall. The guide pointed out the beautifully symmetrical staircases in the Italian Renaissance style. She also said that the Thomas Jefferson Building was the first public space in Washington with electricity--which was especially celebrated in this room with bronze statues of women holding torches. Little children these days are provided with scavenger hunt sheets to try and find things like carved rabbits and storks hidden in the sculpted artwork. Making the tour fun and interesting for the whole family.
Climbing to the next level, our group looked down on the beautiful Main Reading Room. Besides 236 desks, there are statues and stained glass windows representing the forty-eight states that existed when the library was built. Apparently they’re working on adding Alaska and Hawaii. Finally, we were taken to a special exhibit where Jefferson’s books are on display. Some are replacements for those lost in the second fire; 270 are still missing. But the ones marked with green satin ribbons are originals. How cool is that!
What a wonderful tour it was. I hope you'll take advantage of seeing the Library of Congress next time you're in the nation's capital.