In fact, I may have to give back my diplomas as an English Lit major, because I wasn't at all interested in the book collections at the Library of Congress–I was there purely for the architecture. I'd heard rumors it was the most beautiful building in Washington, DC. After visiting, I'd have to agree–and go one further: It might just be the most beautiful building in the country.
If I didn't know better, I might have mistaken this Library for a palace or cathedral in Europe. Everywhere I looked, I saw more details that were just stunning. This building has among the best architecture I've ever seen during my travels. My photos don't do it justice. But I will share them with you anyway.
Who do we have to thank for this glorious architecture? Several men: General Thomas Casey, who oversaw construction and architects John Smithmeyer, Paul Pelz and Edward Pearce Casey, the general's son, among them. But none of this would have happened if it hadn't been for two Senators who pushed for Congressional authorization: Daniel Voorhees of Indiana, who was then Chair of the Joint Committee, and Vermont's very own Justin Morrill, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Buildings and Grounds.
Getting back to the building's purpose as a library. The library's original collection was small and burned during the Revolutionary War. It was replaced by Thomas Jefferson's own personal book collection–over 6,487 books. (I have to hand it to Mr. Jefferson. I've bought a lot of books in my day, but I can't even wrap my brain around owning that many.) Today, the collection has over 158 million items. As the Library's collection grew, it required a new building, so what we now call the Jefferson building was constructed and opened in 1897.
The Library offers free one-hour tours of the Jefferson Building (the one you see here in my photos; there are also two other buildings that are part of the Library of Congress). I didn’t take that tour, but I may on a future trip. As you can see, photography is allowed in the Jefferson building, except in three areas (the room with the Bibles, the exhibitions area, and the Main Reading Room).
Speaking of Bibles, one of the things you can see here is the Gutenberg Bible, which you may remember from school as being the first book printed (in the West, anyway) using movable type. (It was printed by Johannes Gutenberg–hence the name–in 1450.) It looks exactly as you might expect–a large, old book under glass. I wasn’t all that wowed by it, to be honest. I was too mesmerized by the beauty of the building itself.
Here’s a tip for your visit, passed along to me by my friend Tracy Antonioli, The Suitcase Scholar: If you’re visiting the Capitol and the Library of Congress on the same day (and why wouldn’t you? They’re located right across the street from each other), you can avoid going through security twice by using the underground tunnel between the two buildings. Lines to get in to either building weren’t long the day I was there, but if you’re visiting during DC’s busy season of summer, I suppose this could save some significant time.