ONCE AGAIN WEDNESDAY: A Day at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

by Victoria Hinshaw - originally published on March 22, 2010


The LOC Jefferson Building

What could be more fulfilling (at least on this side of the Atlantic) than a day doing research at the Library of Congress (LOC) in Washington, D.C.? I recently had such a lovely day that I want to share my fun with everyone. Sitting at a desk in the elegant Jefferson Reading Room is a great privilege.



Jefferson Building, Main Reading Room

The first step is to secure a Reader's Card, for which you must bypass the Victorian elegance of the Jefferson Building for the sober functionalism of the Madison Building across Independence Avenue SE. When you present your picture identification (driver’s license or passport) you will be issued a card which admits you to the reading rooms, of which there are many for various purposes. If you go, be aware that all your possessions will be scanned at each entrance and all bags, purses and briefcases checked at the door (you can take your wallet, notebooks, etc. into the reading rooms). The researcher’s entrance into the Jefferson building is located at the corner of 2nd and Independence SE. No admission to the reading rooms is available from the other public entrances, but there is a viewing area above. All information on opening hours, rules, and regulations are on the LOC website.

The LOC is the largest library in the world. It was established about 1800 as a service for members of Congress, government officials, and the American public. Books cannot be checked out except by the first two groups or through OCLC interlibrary loan. However, the LOC is very available on the internet; you can spend hours exploring their site.

I had used the on-line catalogue to find the call numbers of the books I wanted and they were delivered to my desk quickly. While I waited for them, I found some useful materials in the open stacks of the reference collection. I became very absorbed in the content of my choices, so much so that I really did not spend as much time people-watching as I had expected. Over all, however, I would say that the patrons as well as the librarians represented a rather ordinary cross-section of the population.

Among the books I consulted were the six volumes by John Cam Hobhouse, Lord Broughton, Recollections of a Long Life; works by and about Horace Walpole, and The Diary of Lady Mary Clavering Cowper, Lady of the Bedchamber to the Princess of Wales, 1716-1720. Any one of my references could have occupied me for a full day.

Just so you know, there is a snack bar and a cafeteria available a short hike away. After lunch, I decided to consult the digital newspaper files and was able to conduct a search and access many articles from 18th and 19th century London newspapers. In this effort I was considerably aided by one of the librarians who helped me through the links to find the search engines and newspapers.

Many of the library’s services are available on line from any computer. There may be some charges involved for certain activities, but that will vary by the subject and purpose. For full instructions, consult the website. And don’t hesitate to try the Ask a Librarian section.

In the Great Hall, Jefferson Building

There are many advantages to working at the LOC in person. Primarily, I loved the ambience, the hushed sounds of papers rustling and whispered conversations in the reading room, the tap of my shoes on the old marble floors, even the weight of the heavy wooden doors. The buildings are fascinating, particularly the Great Hall, with its flamboyant Italianate decoration. On view for the public are many changing
exhibitions on a variety of topics. The big disadvantage – to your purse – is a wonderful gift shop with a bountiful offering of tempting items. Of course, they too are available on line.

Although I have been there many times (I actually lived in Washington for a few years), I can't wait to go back. If you have a story about the LOC to share, please add it to Comments.

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