The Library of Congress is the world’s largest library collection, holding more than 23 million books and 135 million other documents. Although it is literally the library for the U.S. Congress’s research needs, anyone can use the library’s materials while inside the building, with proper ID.
Most people opt to tour the library rather than read in it, and for good reason: It’s a beautiful building. Completed in the Beaux-Arts style (as are New York’s Public Library and Grand Central Terminal) in 1897, the Great Hall inside the building features soaring ceilings and dozens of murals by some of America’s great artists. These murals cover a range of topics, and each usually gets several scenes across a wall or ceiling. Topics include everything from the evolution of the written word, to good and bad government, to how to live a nice life. Along with these are statues, carvings, and other decorations, celebrating science, reason, printing, and more.
The Great Hall of the Library of Congress—Home to Priceless Books
The main floor of the Great Hall contains two priceless Bibles on display: a Gutenberg Bible and the Giant Bible of Mainz, both from 15th-century Germany during the Renaissance that led (eventually) to the ideas of government on which the United States is based.
The Main Reading Room, on the second floor, is topped with a 160-foot rotunda, also elaborately decorated. Even if you’re not planning to read, you can tour the room from the second floor. Besides the architecture, the library hosts a series of permanent and rotating exhibits. Permanent exhibits include displays of entertainer Bob Hope’s personal memorabilia (including his legendary file of jokes) and one dedicated to composer George Gershwin.
The rotating exhibits are thoughtfully done and very good. Because you’re in a library, these displays focus on important documents. Past themes have included maps, political cartoons, The U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, and chamber music.
The architecture of the Library of Congres is a big draw, so expect waits of 20 to 30 minutes to get through security and into the Great Hall. Free, guided, one-hour tours are available on the half-hour from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekdays and at 2:30 p.m. on weekends. Reservations aren’t available. On most non-busy days, plan on arriving around 20 minutes before the tour to get a space; on busy days, arrive 45 minutes to an hour ahead, put your name in, and grab a snack while you wait.
For a review of all major museums in Washington, D.C., check out The Unofficial Guide to Washington, D.C. by Eve Zibart, Renee Sklarew, and Len Testa.
Inside the library of Congress: Carol M. Highsmith [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Gutenberg Bible: Raul654 [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The Great Hall: By Photo: Andreas Praefcke (Own work)) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons