Washington DC, A to Z: Jefferson Building

Since visiting the Library of Congress was one of my vacation priorities, and if we used the Congressional tunnel system we wouldn’t have to go out in the cold or through another security check,  we headed over to the Jefferson Building as soon as we finished our guided tour of the Capitol.

Background Information About the Library of Congress

The Thomas Jefferson Building is the centerpiece of the three Library of Congress buildings on Capitol Hill. The Library of Congress was established in 1800 as a reference library for members of Congress. It was housed in the Capitol until 1897 when the Jefferson Building was completed.

The structure of the building was specifically designed to serve as the American National library. Its elaborately decorated facade and interior were designed to show how the United States could surpass European libraries in grandeur and devotion to classical culture and to inspire optimism about America’s future. (Library of Congress)

The library’s current collection  “of 158 million items includes more than 36 million cataloged books and other print materials in 460 languages; more than 69 million manuscripts; the largest rare book collection in North America; and the world’s largest collection of legal materials, films, maps, sheet music and sound recordings.” For more information about the history of the Library of Congress click here.

Back to our Tour

Leaving the tunnel, we entered the Jefferson building on the ground floor. There’s a gift shop down there and an  Information Desk where you can  join  up with a free one-hour walking tour to learn about the building’s symbolic art and architecture. A free virtual tour app is available through iTunes only. We had just finished a guided tour and both of our phones are Androids so we made do with the printed brochure (also available online) and headed upstairs into the Great Hall.

If you come in from the main entrance, the Great Hall will be the first room you encounter. Until the moment I entered that room, I had no idea that a room that looked like this existed in the United States. I was so shocked I forgot to take my camera out. At least I took a few pictures with my phone!

 View of grand staircase and bronze statue of female figure  holding a torch of electric light
Library of Congress – Jefferson Building – Great Hall
View of ceiling stained glass window  and murals.
Library of Congress – Jefferson Building – Great Hall
Detail of  the Commemorative Arch by Olin L. Warner
The sculpture, The Students, represents the pursuit of knowledge throughout life
Library of Congress – Jefferson Building – Great Hall
On the other side of the Commemorative Arch is the Bibles Gallery with an exhibit featuring the Giant Bible of Mainz (manuscript) and the printed Gutenberg Bible (printing press). We didn’t spend much time looking at the exhibit because it was very crowded, primarily with groups of school children. There is information about the exhibit online including an interactive component to explore, compare, and contrast aspects of the Mainz and Gutenberg Bibles. A couple of tips, since it wasn’t obvious to me:
  • Click here to go to the online exhibit .
  • Click on “Launch interactive”
  • Click on the name of either Bible on the menu bar (shown below). Then you can choose various sections and the click on the compare button.
I really wanted to see the main reading room. There was a ‘no entrance”sign posted at the bottom of the stairs to the reading room overlook so we went and to the  Exploring the Early Americas exhibit. I thought the part of the exhibit comparing the 1507 and 1516 Waldseemüller Maps was fascinating. Click here for the online version.
The third and last exhibit we looked at was “Thomas Jefferson’s Library”. In 1814, the British burned the Capitol and with it the Congressional Library. Thomas Jefferson had  been acquiring books for his own personal library at Monticello for years.  In 1815 Congress purchased his library of 6,487 volumes for $23,950. A second fire in 1851 destroyed almost two thirds of these books, but the Jefferson books remain the core from which the collection of the Library of Congress developed. More information is available here and you can explore the books in the Jefferson collection here.
The “no entrance” sign was still posted at the bottom of the stairs to the reading room overlook. We went downstairs and informed the Information Desk. They told us we could ignore it. It’s a bit strange looking at a very quiet and orderly library from above. I had to take two pictures to show the entire effect.
Main Reading Room. View from above showing stained glass windows and lower portion of the dome.
Library of Congress –  Jefferson Building – Reading Room
Main Reading Room. View from above showing researcher desks.
Library of Congress –  Jefferson Building – Reading Room
Members of Congress have their own private reading room. The main reading room is available to anyone who wants to use the library’s collection of books and bound periodicals for reference. The research desks go in a circle around the room.  The reference librarians sit at a desk with computers and frequently used reference books  in the center. Support staff retrieve requested items from the stacks. Click here for a photo of the entire room. Procedures and rules are listed here. The materials available are described here.
Donna standing on the side steps.
Library of Congress –  Jefferson Building
For an online tour of the Jefferson Building click here. For much better pictures than the ones taken with my phone, explore the Library of Congress Flickr page.
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6 thoughts on “Washington DC, A to Z: Jefferson Building

  1. Beautiful inside and great architecture. Amazing they have a copy of the Gutenberg Bible. I recall being there and seeing it but could not hear the person talking about it

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  2. I'm a librarian too (2nd career). In my previous career I want to DC every spring to attend sessions about the impact of changes in tax law, court rulings etc. I'd always stay over an extra day or two and see the city. But I always avoided Capitol Hill. Now when I go anywhere at all I like checking out the library.

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  3. The architecture is amazing. We had just seen the highlights of the Capitol which are also amazing but I was in awe of the amazing detail of the carvings, wall paintings, Stained glass windows. And along with the Guttenberg Bible they have these increably beautiful hand written bibles.

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  4. I really regret not taking pictures with my camera. The details are amazing. Especially when you stand in the middle of the room with a staircase on either side. It seemed more like a palace than a library.

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