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Poking around the Library of Congress, even when it’s closed
By Tom Adkinson


WASHINGTON – It took the Library of Congress to introduce me to Dog Man and Captain Underpants, two characters you might not expect to have any connection to the library whose core collection once belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

jefferson building library of congress
The Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress was the first all-electric building in Washington; image by Tom Adkinson.

Odd as it may sound, Dog Man and Captain Underpants, creations that sprang from the fertile mind of juvenile book author and illustrator Dav Pilkey, are part of this Washington visitor attraction, which also is the largest library in the world. It has more than 170 million items – almost 25 million books, almost 74 million manuscripts, 5.6 million maps, 8.1 pieces of sheet music, almost 15 million photographs and much more.

Pilkey does his part to promote what the Library of Congress has through a series of online video programs that inspire youngsters to nurture their curiosity and creativity, even if they never come to Washington. Those videos and many other projects are part of the library’s outreach during the coronavirus pandemic shutdown.

When times are normal, the Library of Congress, located immediately behind the U.S. Capitol, attracts nearly 1.9 million visitors a year. It may not have the gee-whiz appeal of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History or the U.S. Air and Space Museum on the other side of the Capitol, but it has plenty of stories to tell.

library of congress gutenberg bible
A docent describes the library’s Gutenberg Bible, one of only three perfect copies on vellum in the world; image by Tom Adkinson.

An item almost everyone wants to see is a copy of the Gutenberg Bible. A docent leading one of the library’s free tours said this is one of only three perfect copies on vellum, meaning it is undamaged in any way. The other two are in London and Paris. The docent also observed it may be more important for its technology – moveable type – than for its contents.

The library was founded in 1800 and was housed first in the Capitol. That makes it America’s oldest federal cultural institution.

The unfortunate incident during the War of 1812 when British troops burned the Capitol destroyed the library’s original 3,000 volumes. However, things started looking up again in 1815 when Congress approved the purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library. The price for his 6,487 books was $23,950.

Today, it is a building named for Jefferson that is the focal point for most people’s visits to the Library of Congress. The imposing Italian Renaissance structure opened in 1897 (it was Washington’s first all-electric building) and recent renovation work makes the cavernous spaces, intricate designs and almost overwhelming artwork gleam just as they did at opening.

library of congress main reading room
The Main Reading Room, accented with Tennessee marble, is one of 21 reading rooms in the Library of Congress; image by Tom Adkinson.

While the library is a research and reference resource for Congress, it definitely is a place for the public. The Main Reading Room in the Jefferson Building draws the most attention, but there are 21 reading rooms spread through the Jefferson Building and two later additions to the library, the James Madison Memorial Building and the John Adams Building.

You can inspect much of the space on your own, but free docent-led tours reveal large amounts of detail and trivia. For instance, cherubs adorn the staircases leading to a room that overlooks the Main Reading Room, but the docent points out that these are no ordinary European-style cherubs. These are American cherubs – a hunter, a cook, a farmer, a winemaker – symbolizing American pursuits.

Pop culture plays a big role in this institution that you might think would be concerned only with the academic. Examples include the Bob Hope Gallery of American Entertainment, the George and Ira Gershwin Room and the Herblock Gallery, which displays the powerful editorial cartoons of Herbert L. Block.

Even during the coronavirus shutdown, the online life of the Library of Congress can educate and amuse you, regardless of where you are. Hop on the library’s website and find interviews with authors such as Stephen King, John Grisham and even Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Perhaps even better, look up the National Recording Registry and see whether your favorite song is listed. Only 25 recordings are chosen each year


Trip-planning resources: loc.gov and DestinationDC.com

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s new book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at CornersOfTheCountry.com.)

Published April 17, 2020













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