LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Open 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8:30 to 6 weekends and holidays. Photography exhibit runs through May, the caricatures and childrens' literature through August.

The Library of Congress stacks are in such disarray even members of Congress have trouble getting books, but its lobby is a visual feast.

The great vaulted entranceway, which by itself is worth the trip, is filled with three exhibits celebrating caricature, photography and the literature of children.

"Drawings of Nature and Circumstance: Caricature Since 1870," the most recent -- and thinnest -- of the exhibitions, tantalizes more than it informs about "the newspaper art." The viewer is just beginning to warm to this strangest and most direct of the mass arts when the 36th and last selection is reached.

The necessity of severe selection is a dreadful burden to all exhibit designers, but surely it is overbold to attempt to embrace a century of caricature with three dozen works by 18 artists.

Still, the spareness of the caricatures is a relief after the variety and richness of the photography and childrens' exhibits. The prize-winning works by the White House Press Photographers Association have tone and impact ranging from a long shot of a lunching worker dwarfed by the massive ceremonial doors of a federal building to mind-searing vistas of the Jonestown dead.

The exhibit is the photographers' annual chance to display their work the way it deserves. The writer who bleeds inside over clumsy editing and typos seldom suffers a tenth of the agony of the news photographer. A fine photograph demands size and printing quality unavailable on newsprint, and the lack of space more often than not maims the photographer's work.

If you liked the pictures in the paper, you'll love them at the Library. The same cannot be said for the television news winners, because the noise level in the lobby is too high to permit the commentaries to be heard clearly.

"Tales, Rhymes & Riddles... in the Spirit of Childhood" uses the International Year of the Child as an excuse for displaying two centuries of childrens' literature from around the world, but no justification is needed. The range and variety are magnificent; the visitor, reading to the end of the pages on view, is tempted to smash the glass in the display cases to learn how the stories come out.

What we teach our children reveals more about us than all the shelves of adult literature. The difference between Parson Weems' fatuous bullroar about the life of George Washington (1809) and Maurice Sendak's fabulous "Where the Wild Things Are" (1963) is the difference between a writer who despises and distrusts children and one who understands and respects them. The hell with the good old days.