The Library of Congress is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, members of Congress use the library to do research, but next to them in the Main Reading Room are the Americans who elected them. Anyone 18 or older with a LOC library card can use any of the 22 reading rooms and access its 650 miles of bookshelves.
Washington is filled with imposing edifices, and the three buildings that make up the Library of Congress are no exception.
With its 160-foot-high dome, semicircles of stained glass depicting the seals of 48 states and bronze statues of such luminaries as Shakespeare, Homer and Beethoven perched on the top floor, the library's Main Reading Room has long been a refuge for some of the country's best-known writers, including Herman Wouk, David McCullough and David Baldacci.
But you don't have to be a literary giant to get a registration card and spend an afternoon working on your own great American novel or just curling up with the newest John Grisham (yes, they have popular fiction!). Take note, the books must stay in the library. Getting a card is pretty easy and takes only about 15 minutes (see "If You Go," below).
The Thomas Jefferson Building, across from the Capitol, is the library building most tourists are familiar with. It's home to one of three copies of the Gutenberg Bible and a 1507 map notable for being the first document with the word America on it. Tourists can only peek into the Main Reading Room, but anyone with a library card can walk right in, plug in a laptop (this old room is completely wired) and then anguish over writing something worthy of such a magnificent space.
In a wired world, the idea of going to the library might seem quaint. But with more than 32 million books, the task of making everything available online is ongoing and will take years, so librarians encourage people to visit.
"There does come a point where you can't find everything online," says Marilyn Parr, the library's public services and collection access officer.
Parr says visitors have come seeking books they read as children; others are looking to research their family tree (Local History and Genealogy); and still more travel from countries that lack such vast collections.
Every region of the world is represented, and many culturally themed reading rooms have special touches. The entrance to the Hispanic Reading Room features murals by Cndido Portinari, and deep blue Mexican tiles line the walls.
In these mammoth buildings you can no doubt find an ornate place to spend a few hours reading, writing or just appreciating the world of books.
-- Amy Orndorff (March 21, 2007)
IF YOU GO: Reader registration cards are available in the James Madison Building. Enter at the Independence Avenue lobby, turn left and follow the signs to room LM140. Be sure to have a government-issued identification card with a photo (a passport or driver's license will do). Fill out a couple of quick forms and have your photo taken.
The process is free and is one way to be introduced to the librarians. Plus you can bypass the line of tourists to get in at the Second Street entrance to the Jefferson building.
WHERE IS IT? Across from the Capitol, along Independence Avenue SE. Accessible by the Capitol South Metro station (Orange and Blue lines).
WHAT ELSE IS THERE? In December the library unveiled interactive exhibits in the Jefferson Building that allow visitors to examine such artifacts as maps and paintings with touch-screen computers. You can also learn about upcoming events by visiting http://www.loc.gov or calling 202-707-8000.