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Adventures at the Library of Congress

This post is part 5 of our Wednesday Adventure Series. Each week we will highlight something different in the Washington, D.C., Metro Area, many of which will be options for part of your own BookCrossing Journey. With so many things to see and do, how will you choose?
Reminder: There’s a little over a month left to register for the convention before prices rise. Hotel rooms are selling out quickly; some nights are already sold out. Reserve now to avoid disappointment!


We like to think of BookCrossing as the World’s Library. During the 2011 BookCrossing Convention, the World’s Library will meet the world’s largest library when BookCrossers have a chance to tour the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

With an ever-growing collection of more than 144 million items, including more than 33 million books and other printed materials in 460 languages, the Library of Congress is, indeed, the largest library in the world. An agency of the federal government, the Library is the research arm of the U.S. legislature and a resource for schools, libraries, publishers, and researchers throughout the world. Some of the collection is available online at

Congress established the Library in 1800 with a budget of $5,000 for buying books. It was housed in the Capitol until 1814, when the invading British army burned the building and pillaged the collection. Soon afterward, retired U.S. President Thomas Jefferson stepped in to offer his personal library – one of the best collections in America – as a replacement. Jefferson, who once wrote, “I cannot live without books,” had developed a unique cataloging system for his own books, different from the Dewey Decimal System that is more familiar to many readers. Today’s Library uses both systems when it creates cataloging records that are used by libraries around the world.

The copyright law of 1870 expanded the collection by requiring copyright applicants to send the Library two copies of each work. The resulting flood of books, pamphlets, music, prints, and photographs overflowed its space in the Capitol. So in 1897, the Library moved to its own building, the gorgeously decorated Thomas Jefferson Building, built in the Italian Renaissance style.

Most tours today focus on the Jefferson Building, but the Library now has two other locations on Capitol Hill – the John Adams Building and the James Madison Memorial Building – as well as off-site facilities.

Visitors to the Library can gape at the elaborate art and architecture of the Jefferson Building. Interestingly, almost all historical figures depicted in the artwork are men, while almost all of the mythical and allegorical figures are women. The building’s original gas lighting fixtures, a novelty in their time, are still in use but have been converted to electricity. A Gutenberg Bible and other priceless books are on display under glass in climate-controlled cases, their pages turned regularly to keep any single spread from fading unduly.

Visitors are not allowed to check books out of the library. But serious scholars can arrange to do research in the magnificent Main Reading Room and other reading rooms at the library, where staff will bring them books and other materials. Visitors can survey the grandeur of the Main Reading Room from a balcony overlook.

When you tour the Library of Congress, don’t forget to look up. The decorated ceilings inside the Jefferson Building are beautiful. And beneath the main floors, in underground tunnels that connect the buildings of the Capitol complex, conveyor belts run overhead. The conveyor belts carry books to their destinations. But books aren’t the only ones that can hitch a ride. A small “train” runs through some of the tunnels, carrying employees and visitors to and from the Capitol. And a new tunnel connects the Library to the new Capitol Visitor Center.

In addition to providing services to researchers, legislators, and libraries, the Library of Congress hosts special events. Many author talks, concerts, lectures, and traveling exhibits are open to the public. The annual National Book Festival attracts thousands of visitors who come to buy books, meet their favorite authors, learn about literary resources throughout the country, participate in book-related activities, and yes, share their love of reading by wild-releasing books all over the National Mall.

A guided tour of this amazing library is one activity you can choose during the 2011 Convention, either early on Friday morning or on Saturday. Tour size is limited to only 60 participants, so be sure to visit the Add-Ons and sign up for it today. If you prefer, you can take a self-guided tour at any time, using the tour pamphlets and interactive video terminals throughout the library.

One Response to “Adventures at the Library of Congress”

  • Todd:

    In this article it is stated that “the Library of Congress is, indeed, the largest library in the world”. However, that is, indeed, incorrect! The LoC is the largest only in terms of number of books, but in terms of number of items, it is the British Library which is, indeed, the largest, for it holds more than 150 million items.

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