An Unconventional Journey to the Library of Congress

by Alice Leccese Powers

For the last dozen years I have edited a literary travel series. My books collect the impressions, in both fiction and non-fiction, of authors touring through Europe: Hemingway in Paris, Edith Wharton in Italy, Frances Mayes in her beloved Tuscany. For a bibliophile this is provocative work, but the first thing I am asked is: “So, you have to travel to those places to do your research?”  And “tough gig” is the customary response.

The truth is that I have traveled to those places-Italy, Ireland, France and Spain-but not to do literary research. For that I venture to my neighborhood library. And as a Washingtonian, this library is the biggest in the world, the Library of Congress.

Established in 1800 with a bequest of $5,000, the Library of Congress was created for the exclusive use of senators and representatives. Originally housed in the Capitol, it was destroyed when the British torched the building during the War of 1812.  In 1815 the government bought Thomas Jefferson’s magnificent 6,000 book personal library for almost $24,000, but a second fire in 1851 destroyed two thirds of Jefferson’s collection. Finally, Congress decided that the Library deserved its own building.

Typically, then as now, progress was sluggish.

Plans for a building next to the Capitol were commissioned, reviewed and discarded. In 1873 the government held an architectural competition that garnered 27 entries. The winners, John L. Smithmeyer and Paul J. Pelz, came up with a building that has been variously described as Italian Renaissance or Victorian Rococo. By the time it was completed in 1897, Smithmeyer had died, penniless, and Pelz had been fired from the project.

But what a building they designed. Fanciful and ornate, it was spared no architectural embellishment–with 112 murals, dozens of statues, stained glass skylights, inlaid marble floors and–to top it off–a gold dome. The Main Entrance hall is breathtaking and almost without parallel in government buildings–until you come to the Main Reading Room, with its soaring 180 foot ceiling, rows of arches, and enormous pillars. As a “smells and bells” Catholic, I have experienced the same reverence in St. Peters.

In Washington Itself, that idiosyncratic guide to D.C., author E.J. Applewhite wrote: “To visit the Main Hall for the first time is to have ones visual faculties taxed to the limit of their capacity; it is like a visit to the inside of a square Easter egg that Faberge might have made for a Romanov. . .”

Not everyone agrees. One critic called the Library “a dreadful medley of waste and maudlin virtuosity” and another wrote that it had a “false idea of grandeur.” Even Franklin Roosevelt considered resurfacing the faÃ???Ã??Ã?§ade with something simpler because he considered the building old fashioned and “out of tune.”

To all critics, I respond that there are enough plain buildings in my hometown. Dull and unaesthetic buildings like the Rayburn Office Building or the FBI building. Or the Madison Building, the newest addition to the Library of Congress located on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue. But the Jefferson Building, as it is now called, is a beauty–maybe a little tarted up–but a beauty nonetheless.

Jefferson’s original collection has now swelled to 130 million items stored on 530 miles of shelves in three buildings–the original Jefferson Building, its annex the Adams Building (1939) and the Madison Building (1980). Depending on how you count its holdings (Do all the issues of Life Magazine count as one or is each counted individually?) it may be the biggest library in the world. Its mission to hold a copy of everything in print, yet collects recordings (2.8 million), photographs (12.5 million), maps (5.3 million) and manuscripts (59.5 million). Every day 10,000 items are added to its collection. That is a lot of reading, even for someone like Jefferson.

In a sense, the Library of Congress is a private public institution. Anyone can use the books, but only Congressmen and women and their staffs can actually check them out. You cannot roam the stacks and pick up, say, the latest Alexander McCall novel or casually sign out The South Beach Diet. In the parlance of libraries, it is closed and non-circulating.

My friend Marie, a famous geologist in the 1950s, had a dedicated research carrel at the Library. Every evening she greeted a sleepy guard and slipped into her private space where she kept books on whatever scholarly article she was preparing at the time. A dashingly handsome senator, who was researching a manuscript in an adjacent carrel, invariably interrupted her note taking. He never brought anything with which to write, not even a pencil, and would tap on the doorway near her desk and ask, again, “Can you spare a pen?” So Marie started bringing extra supplies for the young man. Although she was decades his senior, she always remembered his blazing smile. “And that was my contribution to Profiles in Courage,” she recalled.

The days of casual access to the Library are long over and since September 11 building rules have become more restricted. Everyone must go through metal detectors and bags are checked. All researchers are required to have a photo ID made at the Madison Building. Tourists can take a chaperoned tour of the public areas, but are not allowed into the Main Reading room. They can glimpse its magnificence through a special overlook in the dome.

A day of research at the Library of Congress is for purposeful exploration. I stake out a numbered desk in the main reading room and hit the computerized card catalog.  There my flirtation with the modern age ends.  With a stubby pencil I note my requests and desk number on a call slip which is the size of a highway toll ticket and hand it to the librarian. One slip per book. No exceptions.

Then I wait.

If I am lucky, my books materialize in an hour or two brought up on creaky conveyer belts from the closed stacks. Here is the miracle: my obscure requests are plucked from millions of holdings, from hundreds of thousands of shelves, and routed from conveyer belt to conveyer belt in this cathedral of a library and delivered to my desk.

In my years of research I have often held rare books, risen from somewhere in the maze. Who was the last person to request a guide to Ireland written in the 1700s by Tobias Smollett? Perhaps Jefferson himself, judging from the frailty of the book’s pages. Who else wanted an 1875 account of a solo Spanish trip by that intrepid American adventuress Kate Field? Or the Spanish guidebook written in the early 1800s by Richard Ford.

Every time these books are delivered to my station, I marvel that they are simply handed over. Why isn’t someone turning the pages wearing white gloves while I peer through a two-way mirror? These treasures are mine for hours while I search for the perfect selection for my next anthology. Although this borders on sacrilege, once I choose the appropriate passages I take the precious pages to the Library’s bank of Xerox machines.  In an act of literary time travel a book of the 18th century being technologically copied by someone in the 21st century — I cautiously flatten each spine on the copybed  to get a clear print. This convergence of old and new embodies the Library of Congress. In the future, physically going to the library may become obsolete; I may be the last generation of shoe leathered/stubby penciled/conveyer belted researchers.

One of my recent Library of Congress discoveries is the book Europe Described, written in 1845 by Mrs. Favell Lee Mortimer who wrote a guide to foreign countries for young British children.  It is hard to imagine any child wanting to venture outside of England’s borders after reading her descriptions. In Mrs. Mortimer’s opinion Italians were wicked, the Portuguese were indolent and the Greeks liked to sing, but sang badly. Ironically, Mrs. Mortimer herself never strayed beyond her beloved United Kingdom and gleaned all her information from other writers’ accounts.

In a bizarre way, although I love travel, I understand the lure of not traveling. Without leaving my local library, my Library of Congress, I sample other places through books delivered on a noisy conveyer belt. This journey, across time and space, is miraculous.

Travel Notes:

The Jefferson Building is located on First Street SE between Independence and East Capitol.

The Adams Building is located on Second Street SE between Independence and East Capitol.

The Madison Building is located on Independence SE between First and Second Streets.

The Visitors Center is in the Jefferson Building.

Researchers must register at the Madison Building and acquire a photo I.D. before entering the Main Reading Room.

The Library is closed on Sunday.

For detailed information about tours and hours go to the Librarys excellent website LOC.GOV.

Alice Leccese Powers is the editor of the anthologies Italy in Mind, Ireland in Mind, France in Mind, and Tuscany in Mind, and co-editor of the anthology The Brooklyn Reader: Thirty Writers Celebrate America’s Favorite Borough. A freelance writer and editor, she has been published in The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, Newsday and many other newspapers and magazines. Ms. Powers also teaches writing at the Corcoran School of Art and Georgetown University. She lives in Washington, D.C. Her most recent book Spain in Mind was published in May 2007.


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