Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Washington's Beloved Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is filled with some 35 million books and counting
Just a few more things about Washington before we write up about Philadelphia.

We had a great tour of the Library of Congress and Capitol Hill. The guides make all the difference as we found on our trip. That's how the information sticks and you remember it a long time afterwards.

The Library of Congress opened in 1897 and it is the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States. In 1783 James Madison who later became the fourth president, proposed the idea of having a library of congress. That's because at the time, people had their own libraries, but would have to travel by horseback to retrieve books from home if they were in Philadelphia.

The entrance with Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and war
As a result with the creation of a new institution, this meant needing books on history, legislative process as well as any other publications of use. Our guide told us that in 1789 Congress moved to New York from Philadelphia and then 11 years later to Washington, when the library purchased 740 books and maps.

When the Capitol was built, there was a covered walkway and the library was located on the west side of the Senate. According to our guide, the only reason it was situated there was because there was more light!

However in 1814 during the War of 1812, the British burned down the Capitol as well as White House. Afterwards Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his books to the library which was contentious, as he put a price tag on them, but it was a quick way to rebuild the collection.

In the end a year later Jefferson's books were bought and moved to the rebuilt library, followed by Madison's books and those of John Adams.

The compass showing knowledge comes from all directions
But then in 1851 there was another fire in which only one-third of Jefferson's books survived. You can see the actual books in the Library of Congress in a bookshelf behind glass which is quite neat. The library is obviously trying to rebuild the original collection, with the original books marked with green tags, followed by ones bought later and then holes for the books yet to be found.

The Library now got its own building and in 1876 there was a design competition. The building was finally opened in 1897 -- on time and on budget. It also proved to people outside of the US that Americans could build their own palace of books.

What makes the Library so stunning is its Euro-centric interior, filled with the Italian Renaissance style, carved white marble and has courtyards. Some 800 tons of books were moved into the space.

Our guide also told us the Library is designed as a public space, geared towards families with murals on the walls showing children with their parents, showing knowledge and the transmission of information.

The Gutenberg Bible behind a glass case. Anyone read Latin?
The mosaics on the walls were created in Italy and then installed in the Library. In the main entrance is a sculpture of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and war. She is meant to show that America is a well defended country and offers opportunities, giving citizens peace and prosperity.

Meanwhile there is a compass on the floor, showing that knowledge comes from all directions and comes back in all directions as well.

We got to see the 1452 Gutenberg Bible, one of four complete copies on vellum. It's a huge book, the ink in black and the red lettering was added later.

After a short wait we were allowed to look into the Reading Room -- where people can actually request books and read them. It's a reference library so books cannot be taken out like other public libraries. Anyone over 16 years of age can take a look at books, showing either their ID or passport if they are not American citizens.

Shhh! Inside the Reading Room
Inside the octagonal-shaped room, it's very majestic, with high ceilings and marble, arches and mosaics. The Library now has over 35 million books and there is an online catalogue so there are fewer people physically going into the Library.

The Library also has some interesting special exhibitions. One of them is of poet, essayist and journalist Walt Whitman. There is a glass case showing his leather bag with a flap overtop. He strongly believed in the power of kind attention and "personal magnetism" to help wounded and ill soldiers to heal.

Using this leather bag, he would bring them foods and small gifts to raise their spirits, as well as spend time talking to them.

One of the many sayings: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty"
There's another interesting exhibition showing the contents of Abraham Lincoln's pockets the night he was assassinated on April 14, 1865. In his overcoat he was carrying: two spectacles (one of which was mended with a piece of string), a lens polisher, pocket knife, watch fob, linen handkerchief and a leather wallet containing a five-dollar Confederate note, eight newspaper clippings and a calling card.

Eerie, but only makes the Library of Congress a really cool place to check out.

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