Upon entering The Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, many of our guests are speechless! There is nothing else like it in Washington, DC, and many visitors feel there is nothing like this building in the entire New World.
But the most amazing aspect of this Library of Congress is that it is still standing after 124 years! Many early Libraries of Congress burned – the first Library was burned by the British in 1814 but there were many more fires at Library of Congress sites –including large fires in 1826 and 1851.
Luckily, the present Library of Congress building was funded in 1876 and built on a parallel timeline to the invention of the light bulb in the late 1870’s. When the Jefferson Building finally opened in 1897 it was electrified. At that time it was heralded as the safest library in the world.
Throughout your visit to the Library of Congress, you will notice electric light bulbs everywhere – many outlining the area above mosaics and panels. The builders of this library made sure to pay architectural homage to the advances in electricity that allowed them to create a safe haven for literary treasures.
There are two breathtaking main areas within the Jefferson Building, easy to see on a quick visit: the magnificent Great Hall and the Reading Room located under the 288-foot tall dome.
The Great Hall is an elaborate three story chamber containing endless mosaics, friezes and painted panels devoted to the history of the knowledge – including a giant zodiac imbedded in the floor; above is an exquisite stained glass ceiling. While you wander about this level don’t miss one of three remaining original Guttenburg Bibles in the world on display there. On the way upstairs to the second floor you’ll use marble staircases carved with Putti – little cherubs – some posed as industrious Americans: a fisherman, a chemist, a cook while other putti represent literary genres of Comedy, Tragedy, and Poetry.
The second floor leads to several side wings containing special displays: Thomas Jefferson’s original Library as well as an enlargement of the very first map to use the word ”America” and many more rotating displays. After viewing the exhibits in the wings you’ll be greeted by an immense mosaic of Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom welcoming you to the overlook of the Reading Room on the third floor under the dome.
When you are called to enter the overlook (usually 4-6 persons at a time) you will soon be standing in a large plexiglass clad balcony where you can view the immense Reading Room below as well as large statues of great literary geniuses positioned around the dome at about your own eye level. The books visible in the Reading Room below are all in the ancestry collection of the library of Congress where members can do genealogy research.
The Library of Congress is actually connected via tunnel to the House of Representatives. The Library can be entered from its front door on 1st St, SE or from the Capitol Visitor’s Center using the tunnel.
Presently the Library of Congress is closed to visitors due to Covid 19. Check their website frequently for re-opening updates.
If you do tour the building inside, there are elevators to take you to the different levels. Be sure to view the Jefferson Library of his personal books. The gift shop here is one of the best in town. Be sure to stop by. You can also get great photos of the Capitol from the platform at the top of the steps at the entrance of the Library.