Book History Exhibits at the Library of Congress: Booking it Around Washington

Book History Exhibits at the Library of Congress: Booking it Around Washington

The American government was moving.

Like any sensible body moving house from one place to another, Congress decided that it wanted a library in its new place. And, like any reasonable person, President John Adams said, Yes! Go right ahead!

As the new nation was settling into its role as – ahem – an actual nation, the government of the United States made the decision to move itself to the new city which was founded just for that purpose: a city neither in the North nor in the South, which was located in exactly none of the states, and could therefore remain neutral in dealing with inter-state matters. That city is, of course, Washington, D.C. (As we all know, the government was operating out of Philadelphia before the District of Columbia was established by taking lands from both the Maryland and Virginia holdings.)

Library of Congress original collection
A selection of the original books acquired from Thomas Jefferson

The move involved an act of Congress, which had to be signed by the President – in this case, John Adams. A part of this bill called for the establishment of a Congressional library, with “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress – and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein…” In other words, the government gave Congress the right to accumulate books that would help it with its legislative work and build one heck of a bookshelf to store them.

Things were going great. Congress had bought somewhere around 3,000 books with the money allotted them for that purpose, and they were being housed in a room in the Capitol. Then it all went to hell.

Library of Congress main atrium
The main atrium of the Library of Congress

In 1812, a war erupted between Great Britain and the United States over, basically, the right of the United States to be a sovereign nation (Great Britain was a bit reluctant to acknowledge the creation of an American nation after the Revolutionary War, and started capturing American trading vessels and their sailors). Things went from bad to worse, and the brand-new, shiny capital city that Americans had just built from themselves was torched. The British invaded in 1814 and burned everything in sight, including both the Capitol and the White House. While the First Lady at the time, Dolley Madison, was making a heroic effort to save important papers in the White House, no such effort was made for the Congressional library. All 3,000 tomes went up in smoke.

Enter former President Thomas Jefferson. Being a gentleman farmer/scholar himself, Jefferson knew the value of a good book, and had collected several of his own. Upon hearing that Congress’s library had been burned, he offered to sell a new library, of around 10,000 books, to Congress, allowing them to set their price. After much discussion, during which Jefferson had to defend the nature of the books he was going to sell to Congress (“I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”), a collection of 6,487 volumes was bought, to the tune of $23,950 (approximately $374,000 in 2015 money, according to an online inflation converter). This may mark the last time that Congress was scrupulous enough to keep from spending even $50 that it didn’t need to. It also marks the birth of the modern Library of Congress.

Library of Congress statue
Lighting the way – an appropriate task for a library

Since its inception in 1800, the mission of the Library of Congress has been expanded a bit: “…to support the Congress in fulfilling its constitutional duties and to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.” In other words, it was established to help Congress do its job, but it also works for the benefit of the American people. It accomplishes this last by housing the American copyright office, which protects the intellectual work of artists in the country, as well as abroad (that’s how we keep American writers from slapping their names of the books of British authors, and vice versa), and preserving documents, manuscripts, and texts for future generations.

Pretty cool stuff, all the way around.

Visiting the Library of Congress probably sounds like a mandatory tour for an eighth-grade trip rather than a vacation destination. The truth is, though, there’s a lot more to the Library of Congress than the one reading room that everyone takes a peek at when they visit. The Main Reading Room is definitely worth a look. Impressive architecture plus a massive set of (completely full) bookshelves equals a commanding view. That being said, take a stroll around the place while you’re there.

Library of Congress reading room
The Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress, as seen from the walkway in the atrium

When I was there this summer, there were several exhibits open, including ‘Exploring the Early Americas,’ ‘First Among Many: The Bay Psalm Book and Early Moments in American Printing,’ and ‘Thomas Jefferson’s Library.’ There were other exhibits as well, but these were the three that I visited, and let me tell you, they were good.

‘Exploring the Early Americas’ is exactly what it sounds like. On display are texts and artifacts from both pre-Columbian times and post-Columbian expeditions. They have codices from Latin American civilizations, such as the Mayans, on display next to artifacts that date from the same time period. In other cases are displayed the travel logs of multiple explorers, including a certain Cabeza de Vaca, who I was just sure was some crazy person that my American Literature professor made up for the heck of it. At the back of the room are several maps that date from the early 1500s, which display the early attempts at cartography in the New World.

Library of Congress display
John Hancock’s Plea for Support, printed as a broadside (really big leaflet)

The ‘First Among Many’ exhibit may need a bit more explanation. The Bay Psalm Book was the first book to be printed in the American Colonies, and what would become the United States. In those days, printing presses were extremely expensive, extremely rare, and could only be operated by permission of the king. So the fact that any book was printed in the backwaters of the British Empire was pretty impressive. This exhibit starts with the Bay Psalm Book (a religious book, which contained the Book of Psalms translated into English meter, or poetry) and progresses from there, displaying bibles that had been painstakingly translated into Native American languages (which, for the most part, had no system of writing, making the process all the more difficult) and several versions of the first printed copies of the Declaration of Independence. Being America’s favorite – and arguably most famous – printer, Benjamin Franklin and his Poor Richard’s Almanack naturally find a place in this exhibit.

Library of Congress Franklin
A discussion that continues to this very day.

In what is probably one of the most understated exhibits of all time, the ‘Thomas Jefferson’s Library’ exhibit is exactly that: Thomas Jefferson’s library, as sold to Congress in 1814. Unfortunately, a second fire at the Library of Congress after the sale destroyed some of the books, but those that are both extant and available (some are currently being restored or used for research) are on display in a circular bookshelf. Any book lover knows that there is a wrong way to organize books and a plethora of right ways to organize books. Thomas Jefferson developed his own system of organization for his books, which the Library of Congress has adopted for this exhibit.

Should you find yourself in Washington, D.C. in early September, the Library of Congress is hosting the National Book Festival, which is a fantastic event! Be sure to stop by – admission is free!

All this came about because of a man who said “I cannot live without books.” I think it’s safe to say that I feel the same way.

Library of Congress Franklin display
A display of early American printing

Visiting the Library of Congress:

Getting there: The Library of Congress is conveniently located across the street from the Capitol, at the east end of the National Mall. It’s accessible by various public transit routes, and the closest metro stops are: Capitol South and Union Station. You can drive also, but parking in DC is a regular nightmare, especially so close to a high-security zone. Ye be warned.

Admission: There is no admission fee to the Library of Congress or its exhibits! This is your heritage and your right as an American! (or a researcher, or just someone visiting who wants to see something cool)

Opening hours: Monday through Saturday from 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM. If you’re going for research, be sure to check the times for the individual reading room you’ll be in, as times may vary for those.

Website: You can visit the Library of Congress website here.

Good to know:

  • The Library of Congress is a high-security zone, for fairly obvious reasons. This means that all visitors go through security on their way in. In other words, bags will be searched!
  • Only registered researchers may enter the reading rooms. This is to ensure they have a quiet space to do their work – but visitors can still see the Main Reading Room from the balcony above.

Sources: I got my information from the Library of Congress’s website and by visiting the Library of Congress itself.

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