Friday, December 16, 2011

Library of Congress: Inside the Main Reading Room

Anyone who visits us and participates in our infamous DC Death March... errr... tour of the sites, will attest that I think the Library of Congress is the most underrated building in our Nation's Capital. And no, this has nothing to do with the National Treasure sequel.

J and I have made it our mission to experience as much of DC, and this world for that matter, as we can. We've been on more tours of iconic buildings than I can count, and it is clear that I'm a sucker for grand architecture and historical symbolism. The Library of Congress has these in spades. It is a library after all, and telling the story of civilization is its jam. Unfortunately, I've met far more people in DC that have never entered the building, taken the time to marvel at the iconography, and enjoyed the free tour. 'For shame' I say to you, as I waggle my finger.

One of the tour's highlights is a glimpse into the Main Reading Room (where no photos are allowed much to the chagrin of this blog post). This is the Sugar Ray Robinson of interior spaces; pound for pound, it can't be beat. I love the grandeur created by the traditional columns and arches. I love the openness from the building's height and the natural light that flows in. I love the 3 different colors of marble and the history lesson painted on the ceiling. I love the categorical luminaries hovering over users and providing inspiration. I just love it.

Any time we're in the area and have an extra 10 minutes, I jump at the opportunity to sneak a peak. But, pressing my face against the plexiglass wasn't doing it for me (or the window washers). Going into the Main Reading Room was added to the top of our DC Bucket List.

While intimidating, this is actually really easy. First, you must obtain a library card from the Madison building across the street. You fill out a form and get your picture taken. That's it. I've heard that there can be lines, but we lucked out. 20 minutes tops. And yes, it is free.

Entering the Library and passing the information desk, you flash your newly minted card and warder through an endless maze of halls and up an elevator (don't forget to check coats and bags). Flash your card again, sign your name on a sheet, and there you are... in the Library of Congress' Main Reading Room.

Some people are legitimately studying (it seemed like the majority were law school students), but I just wandered around and tried not to say "Wow!" too loudly. Can you imagine the shush I would get? We stayed for over an hour, not doing anything other than taking it all in. Just another hidden gem in this great city of ours and another check off our bucket list.

J Says

You know those people who can just "act like they belong" and wander into any room or setting without fear? I'm not one of them. I'm generally convinced I'm going to get into trouble and get kicked out of places. I'm a rule follower and will check the policies and procedures before visiting a new museum, going to a concert, etc. Don't I sound like fun?

With this background, you'll understand that I was nervous about going into the Main Reading Room. I searched online for details of the experience but found little other than that the room is reserved for people doing actual research. Yikes!

Before our visit, we came up with elaborate reasons for needing to go into the Main Reading Room. We were rehearsed and ready. When we walked past the security guard and flashed our library cards, I was ready to launch into my research explanation. However, much to my comfort, nobody ever asked why we were there. In fact, since we were quiet, nobody paid any attention to us at all. Whew.

So, while I'm not advocating that you scoff at the Main Reading Room's rules and use it for you own personal hangout spot, I do think you can get your library card and visit the beautiful space (quietly and respectfully) without having a legit research reason. As B so often tells me: "See? There was no reason to be worried!" Lesson learned.


Anonymous said...

THANK YOU for your post! I REALLY want to go and study there, but I was afraid that I'm not doing legitimate research. I think I'll give it a try though!

Karen said...

I am a volunteer docent at the Library of Congress - Jefferson Building and your commentary is refreshing. Must admit: I step inside the Reading Room to study / research / record notes from tours of the day and I find the visual delight most distracting. I don't get much work done, but I do feel so inspired (and relaxed) when I leave.

J said...

Thank you for volunteering at one of our favorite places in DC! When B told me a LOC docent commented on our post, my first question was "uh oh, did we get in trouble for telling people how to go in there?" I'm glad you liked the post!