The big Daddy of all libraries

Storage has always been a problem at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Ever since it started collecting books in the early 19th century and became the depository of every copyrighted book in the United States, it has been running out of space to house them.

Even when the original library (the Thomas Jefferson Building) was built in 1897 with 13 levels of underground book storage, it quickly became full, and adjacent buildings, built in 1939 and 1980, also filled up. With no land available on Capitol Hill anymore, books had to be sent to off-site storage facilities around the capitol city.

But, when I recently visited the Thomas Jefferson Building, this problem did not seem to be in evidence, where hardly any books were to be seen at all.

A tour guide explained that not seeing the collection had been done on purpose. Because the library was intended for research purposes, the books were shelved in storage areas and could only retrieved by special request. The impressive art and architecture gave visitors something to look at instead.

The public areas of the library were designed as a showpiece for the nation. The Great Hall impresses first, rising 75 feet from marble floor to stained glass ceiling, with marble columns, dramatic staircases, elaborate mosaics and paintings on every wall.

The highlight of the building is the Main Reading Room, with a soaring cupola decorated in gold leaf and surrounded by paintings, quotes and symbols, emphasizing the library’s role as a cultural shrine to learning and knowledge.

But my favourite area was the exhibit hall where the Thomas Jefferson Library was on display. In 1815, Congress bought the former president’s collection of 6,487 volumes, one of the largest personal libraries at the time. It was interesting to see what a famous 18th century man was reading and how his eclectic tastes laid the foundation for a national institution and influenced the direction of the biggest library in the world.