If you walk inside the main building of the world’s largest library, you won’t see many books. There are marble floors, stained-glass windows, elaborate tiled ceilings and gold-leaf doors. The Library of Congress, 13-year-old Jack DiPaula says, feels “more like a museum” than the public library in his home town of Baltimore.
That’s not to say that it’s boring.
On a recent Saturday, Jack and his sister Reilly, 11, participated in a lively 45-minute tour given by Rachel Gordon, a British-born book lover with a green laser pointer and a knack for history.
Designed just for kids, the weekly 10 a.m. tour is part of a wave of new young-adult offerings at the library, including expanded hours at the Young Readers Center.
The center is open weekdays and now Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and features arts and crafts, shelves packed with comics and other books, author events, and several cheery librarians, all ready to help with school projects and research papers.
“Librarians are really the original search engine,” Carla Hayden, the Library of Congress’s new chief, told KidsPost last week. “What they study is how to help people get accurate information, go to the right source.”
Hayden, the former head of the Baltimore library system, became the first female and first African American librarian of Congress when she was sworn into office in September. She’s trying to make the library more accessible for kids in Washington and across the country.
You can explore and download historic documents and photographs on the library’s website, Hayden said — including notebooks and letters from figures such as civil rights leader Rosa Parks. Those can give kids “a fuller sense of history,” along with “a sense of what their own place in history can be.”
Hayden says she also hopes to bring history to the people by mounting traveling exhibitions, perhaps on an 18-wheeler truck that would carry copies of library artifacts across the country. And she plans to use virtual-reality technology to let kids explore the space of the library without leaving home.
The library’s Thomas Jefferson Building, on Capitol Hill, contains some of the collection’s most interesting objects and much more than books. In addition to more than 38 million books and printed materials, the Library of Congress houses photographs, recordings, maps, comic books, baseball cards and gold recovered from a centuries-old Spanish shipwreck.
The library was established in 1800, mainly to help Congress perform research on proposed laws, but anyone 16 or older can sit in the marble-floored, dome-topped Main Reading Room and pull books from the collection. Jack says that in a few years, he’d “definitely” like to come back and do just that.
For now, there was the Young Readers Center and the many objects on display in the library’s galleries, including a faded piece of paper encased in glass on the second floor.
“It may not look like much,” Gordon said, gesturing at the object from 1507, “but this is one of the most important maps in history. What do you see on this little strip?”
Reilly squinted, following her finger to a small word in all caps. “America?”
“That’s right,” Gordon said. “This is the first map to ever use the word ‘America.’ It’s the birth certificate of America.”
The map, purchased in 2010 for $10 million, is just one item in a collection of more than 164 million.
If you go
What: Explore the Library of Congress on a guided tour and visit the Young Readers Center for books and arts and crafts. Walk through the cavernous Main Reading Room on Presidents’ Day or Columbus Day.
Where: 101 Independence Avenue SE, Washington. Tours start at the ground-floor visitors’ desk. The Young Readers Center is in the northeast corner of the ground floor, in Room 29.
When: Tours are Saturdays at 10 a.m. The Young Readers Center is open Monday through Saturday 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. The Main Reading Room open house is Monday, February 20 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
How much: Free.
How old: Tours are designed for ages 6 to 12.
For more information: A parent can visit loc.gov or call 202-707-5000.