Washington, D.C. Sights

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Library of Congress

Library of Congress Review

The largest library in the world has more than 155 million items on approximately 838 miles of bookshelves. Only 35 million of its holdings are books—the library also has 3 million recordings, 14 million photographs, 5.4 million maps, 6.5 million pieces of sheet music, and 68 million manuscripts. Also here is the Congressional Research Service, which, as the name implies, works on special projects for senators and representatives.

Built in 1897, the copper-domed Thomas Jefferson Building is the oldest of the three buildings that make up the library. Like many other structures in Washington, the library was criticized by some as being too florid, but others praised it as the "book palace of the American people," noting that it "out-Europed Europe" in its architectural splendor. The dome, topped with the gilt "Flame of Knowledge," is certainly decorative, with busts of Dante, Goethe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and other great writers perched above its entryway. The Court of Neptune, Roland Hinton Perry's fountain at the base of the front steps, rivals some of Rome's best fountains.

The Jefferson Building opens into the Great Hall, richly adorned with mosaics, paintings, and curving marble stairways. The grand, octagonal Main Reading Room, its central desk surrounded by mahogany readers' tables under a 160-foot-high domed ceiling, inspires researchers and readers alike. Computer terminals have replaced card catalogs, but books are still retrieved and dispersed the same way: readers (16 years or older) hand request slips to librarians and wait patiently for their materials to be delivered. Researchers aren't allowed in the stacks, and only members of Congress and other special borrowers can check books out. Items from the library's collection—which includes one of only three perfect Gutenberg Bibles in the world—are on display in the Jefferson Building's second-floor Southwest Gallery and Pavilion. Information about current and upcoming exhibitions, which can include oral-history projects, presidential papers, photographs, and the like, is available by phone or Web. To even begin to come to grips with the scope and grandeur of the library, one of the free hourly tours is highly recommended. Well-informed docents provide fascinating information about the library's history and holdings; they can decode the dozens of quirky allegorical sculptures and paintings throughout the building.

    Contact Information

  • Address: Jefferson Bldg., 1st St. and Independence Ave. SE, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC 20540 | Map It
  • Phone: 202/707–9779
  • Cost: Free
  • Hours: Mon.–Sat. 8:30–4:30; reading room hrs may extend later. Free tours Mon.–Sat. at 10:30, 11:30, 1:30, and 2:30, and weekdays at 3:30
  • Website:
  • Metro Capitol South.
  • Location: Capitol Hill
Updated: 06-05-2013

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