Monday, January 23, 2012

Washington D.C. - The Library of Congress

I decide a visit to the Library of Congress might be just the thing to give a boost to any latent writing talent – talent I’m sure just waiting to ignite with some outside catalyst.

I should walk from our hotel, it is only about 1 ½ miles, but as I start walking I am a bit shocked at the temperature.  I’m just not used to it yet, so I hop in a cab.  Anyway, some of these cab rides are worth much more than the convenience of the ride.  This was a quick trip but my cab driver and I exchanged tips on how to sleep through the night.
Image of Nicolas Cage as "Ben Gates" in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress from NT2's official Web site
Nicolas Cage in the Main Reading Room - from
NT2's Official Web Site

The Library of Congress is an impressive, beautiful building inside and out.  Gorgeous murals, art, architectural elements  - but where are all the books??   This is more like a museum than a library.  I don’t get any literary vibes until our tour group gathers in a glass fronted alcove and can peer down three floors into the library’s main reading room (the one used in the movie “National Treasure” and “All the President’s Men”).  This room is what you think about when you think of the great libraries of the world.  It is a fabulous many storied dome room with reading and working areas on the ground floor for “researchers” to request their books or other library collection items and where they must use them - nothing can leave the library.  Visitors aren’t allowed into the library’s reading rooms but this is where I want to go and sit and ponder and let creative thoughts flow through my fingers onto a page…. 

Researchers can gain access by going to room L147 in the adjoining Madison building to apply for an official library ID.  I am not sure if I qualify for the researcher classification but I decide to give it a try – I really want to experience that reading room!   It takes some walking through tunnels and corridors and so I have plenty of time to think about a plausible research topic.  I decide on:  “History of Anabaptists in Switzerland”.  This subject really did come up several years ago in the course of research into my family’s genealogy.  It sounds fairly scholarly, not too normal, and fairly useless – perfect research topic.   They would certainly go for this.

But no one even asks what I will be researching.  And I would have sounded so impressive!  Oh well.   So without incident I get my very official photo ID (good for two years) and then thread my way through the tunnels back to the Jefferson Building and finally find the entrance to the main reading room.  I show my new ID and they let me walk right in!  I decide I should try to give the impression, at least, that I am researching something or they might kick me out so I first step into the card catalog room (all on computer of course) and look up my brand new research topic and good grief – there actually is a book titled:  A History of the Anabaptists in Switzerland – amazing.  I print out the call number and information and then walk across the hall to the beautiful main room and very quietly ask the nice man behind the counter what to do, fully expecting him to tell me I am a fraud and shoo me away.  But he is quite nice and has me fill out an old fashioned little slip of paper with the call number and my library card number and then I find a charming little carrel in which to sit and wait for my book to come from who knows where.   I envision conveyors like airport luggage belts on which books would arrive from all parts of this large complex of buildings.  But fortunately, as befitting this historic structure, a little lady comes every so often into the room pushing that same kind of library wooden cart that I remember from my childhood. 

During the hour or so I wait (yes, it apparently takes quite a while to retrieve requested books – I suppose with 33 million volumes it would be quite a task to fill requests, even though I don’t see more than about 10 people in this room), I expect any moment the literary enlightenment that must come from being in so august a place as this.  I wait and wait.  I find I have no brilliant thoughts to scribble on my scrap paper. And my requested book still hasn’t come after an hour (it usually takes about 45 minutes to retrieve books, but they are a bit behind today I am told when I inquire).  But I feel quite assured, even though it might take a while, that this book is safe somewhere in this complex of buildings, and it is available for anyone.   Just not for me on this particular day.  It is late, I am starving and I have accomplished my goal of sitting in this wonderful room.

I also realize that with on-line resources and inter-library loans, there is no real reason to come to a particular library.  I suppose a physical library might one day be a thing of the past.   I may not have experienced any personal literary enlightenment being on-site but I have came away from my visit with a very clear appreciation of how important it is to have a symbolic presence to remind us of what books represent and how important the written word is to our democratic society.                                  

Entrance Foyer

The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world.   The collection of more than 144 million items includes more than 33 million cataloged books and other print materials in 460 languages; more than 63 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. Every day approximately 10,000 new items are added to its permanent collection.  There are fascinating exhibits always in process (right now the one on maps is notable.)   Ordinary people like me, members of Congress,  researchers, and governments from all over the globe rely on this, our Library.  I highly recommend a visit.

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