One might expect to find a music historian in a music library, poring over scores and blissfully listening to recordings. Well, yes -- but that's not the whole picture. The study of music requires a great deal of research outside the music collections, and consequently, I find myself about half the time using materials in the general collection at the Library of Congress.
As a scholar lucky enough to have a study desk at LC, many of my hours are spent above, rather than in, the Main Reading Room -- that magnificent, domed, ornate 1890s space that is one of the most beautiful in all of Washington. The gallery isn't a silent study area, but it is serene. The sound in the huge open room below is rather like that of a cathedral: an ever-present background hum of low murmurings, punctuated by the scraping of a chair, the major third ring-aling of the telephone, and the percussive click that reverberates through the room each time a librarian at the main desk shoves a call slip into the time clock.
There are lots of "regulars" at the library: academics, governments officials, think-tank types, writers. We regulars tend to develop a kinship. Scholars begin to look familiar; we stop to chat and compare progress reports and take coffee breaks together. We get to know the reference librarians and they us. We know where to look for what we need, which alcoves hold which reference books, which books are in the general stacks and which in the special reading rooms or special collections, when to use the computer and when to use the card catalogue, when to concede defeat and enlist the help of a librarian. We also learn how to find something when the library doesn't have it. Contrary to folk wisdom, the Library of Congress doesn't have everything.
Ah, but it does have a lot, and in many ways it is a scholar's paradise. If I'm reading a book on the 19th century and find a reference to a memoir published in New York in 1842, chances are good that I can put my hands on that very memoir without leaving the building. If I come across a mention of a letter written by a major historical figure in 1795, I might find the original in the manuscript division.
I rarely stay until closing, but when I do, I sense a change in the library's patrons. They may not be more dedicated, but they seem to be burning the midnight oil.
I've always been amazed that in New York scholars manage to do their research given the limited hours of the New York Public Library. Now I reckon scholars in Washington will have to learn to manage too.