When a friend told me he had an in at the Library of Congress who could do a tour for me, I had no idea that the friend would turn out to be the Director of Volunteer Services. This was obviously the man who gives master classes to tour guides, and it was most certainly one of the most stellar tours I have ever had the pleasure to experience. That my parents, who obviously supplied me with a powerful pair of bibliophilic genes, were able to join me was icing on the cake.
We started off in the Bibles Gallery, which contains a pair of extremely rare specimens. The first is the Giant Bible of Mainz, one of the last great hand-written bibles which took about eighteen months to complete. A reader would read a bible verse, and the monk would inscribe it on the page. In general, the monks who scribed bibles were anonymous, but this particular monk did such a find job that he eventually received his own nickname, “Calamus fidelis” or “the faithful pen.” The pages of the book are designed to be embellished with fancy borders or illustrations, but for some reason, the illustrations stopped only a few pages in.
In the second case in the Bibles Gallery is a Gutenberg Bible. In the time it took Calamus fidelis to produce a single copy of the Bible, Gutenberg made about 160 copies with his printing press. One detail that I hadn’t thought about before was that since Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press in the West, there were no pre-made cases of type to access. Thus someone had to count up the number of A’s, B’s, C’s, etc on each page and then all of those letters had to be made before the type could be set. Of the approximately 50 existing copies of the Gutenberg Bible, about 12 are on vellum, which is dried animal skin, and the rest are on high cotton content paper. One of the odd artifacts of using vellum is that there was no particular standard size for a page. Thus if the vellum was cut into large pieces, then the entire bible might be contained in just two volumes. If the dimensions of the pages were smaller, then three or four volumes might be required. For displaying both the Mainz and the Gutenberg Bibles, the cases are filled with argon gas, the lighting level is low, and the pages are turned periodically so that the exposure to the elements is minimized.
The Library of Congress (LOC) was established in 1800, and along with the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the Supreme Court, they shared space in the Capitol while construction was continuing on the building. That lasted until 1814 when the British arrived in Washington, burned the White House, and using the books from the Library of Congress collection as fuel for also burned the Capitol. Thomas Jefferson, in retirement at Monticello, offered his personal book collection as a replacement, which started the shift from a collection that focused on law to a collection that reflected Jefferson’s broad-ranging interests. Jefferson, always a planner, sent his books in eight ox carts with four taking one route and four taking another, just in case. All of the books arrived safely, but I respect his caution.
Jefferson’s library occupies a special exhibit space in the building, and it is constructed in a conch, which is nearly a circle. Jefferson had always wanted to have all of his books in a circle around him so that he could sit in his swivel chair and scan for the title he wanted. Having been to Monticello, I know that he certainly didn’t have the space for it at his home, but the LOC decided they would give it to him now. Sadly, about two-thirds of Jefferson’s original books were also lost in a fire, but a generous gift to the LOC allowed for the reconstruction of the library. If a book in the library has a green ribbon bookmark, it is one of Jefferson’s originals. If the ribbon is gold, then the book is a replacement of the exact edition in Jefferson’s library. No ribbon means the book is the same title and approximate edition, and titles that have not yet been replaced are noted by a box whose spine contains the title and author information. The books are arranged in three groups: Memory, Reason, and Imagination, which Jefferson interpreted as history, science, and arts.
In 1886, the book collection was overrunning the Capitol with books stacked in staircases and in hallways, so at last Congress appropriated money to construct a new building for the Library. The original construction company turned out not to be up to the task, so the project was turned over to the Army Corps of Engineers, who completed the project early and under budget. I rather enjoyed the idea that the Army Corps could build a library as adeptly as building dams.
The Jefferson building of the Library of Congress was designed as an Italian Villa and is extremely ornate. We were told a story of President Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin arriving through the front doors of the building for an event. Initially absorbed in their conversation, Yeltsin eventually looked up, stopped, and then said to Clinton, “You have never had Tsars here. How did this building happen?”
Of all the stories of the décor, my favorite involved the carved marble figures going up the steps. My memory of the story is that the Army Corps general recruited several marble carvers from Italy and brought them over to do the work. The general announced that he wanted babies, known as Putti, carved on the wall next to the stairs. The craftsman said, “no.” The general pressed his point that the putti were typical of the Italian style, but the craftsman explained that this library was a place of study and exploration rather than indolence and apathy. When the General would not accept the craftsman’s answer, the craftsman finally replied, fine, he would carve babies, but they would be worker-babies. Thus each of the putti represents some kind of occupation or profession. There is a farmer carrying a scythe and wheat, an architect looking at plans, an astronomer holding a telescope, and even babies representing the performing arts. There is one who is identified as a physician, but our guide, who understood his audience, said that because the putti was holding a retort, he obviously was a chemist! Our guide also made a point of showing us the wall panel honoring chemistry as well.
The original Jefferson LOC building had four courtyards for a wonderfully open floor plan. In 1908, the LOC approached Congress and explained that they were running out of space to store books. Congress replied, “How many courtyards do you have?” The LOC replied, “four.” Congress replied, “Use one of them.” So they enclosed one of the courtyards and added book storage. That eased the space issue for a few years until 1927 when the LOC again approached Congress and said that all of their space was full. Congress again replied, “How many courtyards do you have?” “Three,” was the reply. “Use one of them,” was the direction from Congress. These conversations repeated until the LOC was down to a single courtyard, and Congress finally authorized construction of the Madison Building. The Adams Building followed at some point after that, but both of those structures are a bit more utilitarian; the Jefferson building remains the showpiece.
The Main Reading Room made my library-loving heart go pitter-pat. Not only is it a magnificent space with book-filled nooks all around the perimeter, but we also learned the process of doing research. A researcher will first go to the Madison building to get a reader card and to talk through the general topics that are of interest. The person is then sent to the best starting point of the 26 reading rooms around the three LOC buildings. If the Main Reading Room is the best place to start, then the researcher is assigned a desk and is given a form to request up to 10 books. The books are delivered 45 minutes later, and that desk belongs to that person for the duration of her stay. If the researcher stays longer than a week, then she is assigned her own book shelf to keep her materials. If she is planning to stay for six months or more, then she gets assigned a tiny cubical in a different building that allows her to keep all of her materials safely in one spot. Certainly the architecture of the Main Reading Room is splendid, but all those books and the idea of my own desk in the LOC really put me over the moon.
Our last stops were in a few special rooms on the first floor. There is an extensive collection of music and instruments belonging to the Gershwins, and about a quarter of Bob Hope’s memorabilia are displayed in an adjacent room. I was particularly excited that we were able to go into the “Whittall Pavilion,” which is a meeting room where the instruments by Stradivarius are kept. Since violins must be played regularly to keep their quality, the LOC regularly invites visiting string quartets to come play the instruments and give concerts in the Coolidge auditorium of the LOC, a performance space designed with perfect acoustics.
My family has gone on numerous tours over the years, so we have high standards for guides. This tour was one of the best I’ve ever been on and the space was absolutely amazing. I highly recommend a visit to the Library of Congress.