Exploring DC: The Library of Congress

I have always been in awe of the very concept of this building.

Recently Dear Husband and I took a trip that we are calling “Autumn Back East 2021”. Our goal was to visit friends and family, and I wanted to show DH what autumn leaves really look like in a region that isn’t primarily covered in evergreen trees, and introduce him to our nation’s capital.

We flew to Atlanta, picked up a rental car, then drove to Alabama, North Florida, Georgia, Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and then drove to Washington DC by way of Virginia. Then we flew back home.

It was an amazing trip which lasted 15 days, and since I’m now only blogging every other day, if I gave you a day to day account like I have on trips past, it would take a month, and you’d be heartily sick of the subject before we even left peach country. So I’ve decided to focus on highlights, which I’ll do my best to keep in order. You can find the first post in the series here, and a link to the next post in the series, when it becomes available, below.

Our first morning in Washington DC started off with high hopes and a great deal of excitement. We went over our day’s plans while we ate the hotel’s complimentary breakfast. We had decided that there was really no point to keep the rental car. Parking and driving in this city is a nightmare. And since 99 percent of the things we wanted to see in the next few days were located in or around the National Mall, and the weather was lovely, we thought we’d rent bicycles.

There was a Capital Bikeshare station just a half block from our hotel. We had done our homework and learned you could get a day pass for $8. We downloaded the app and then struggled to figure out how to use it. This meant we got a later start than usual, and thanks to COVID, we had to schedule an appointment for our first stop, the Library of Congress, and time was a waistin’.

Dear Husband hopped on his bike and cruised along without breaking a sweat. I had expected to do the same. We have been exercising regularly and losing weight, and I was feeling good about myself until I got on that damned bike.

Downtown DC seems relatively flat after having been in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but I was huffing and puffing. And sweating. And then my heart started pounding and I got dizzy and had a sneezing fit. I had to stop. When I was still drenched in sweat and my heart was still pounding 20 minutes later, it became quite clear that I wasn’t going to be biking around DC. Not even in my wildest dreams.

For the rest of the day, I was struggling to breathe and my heart continued to pound and the sneezing fits came and went. I was convinced that I had finally gotten COVID, but subsequent tests said that wasn’t the case. The doctor was stumped, too. Tests revealed nothing. It was definitely not a heart attack. The working theory at this point is that I got bitten by something in the woods of North Carolina and had had a strong but delayed reaction. I did have several hard bites on my arms and legs. Benadryl helped.

It was a long day, which included me bursting into tears in public because I was convinced I was ruining our vacation. I was overtired. I seem to have one melt down every vacation. And incidentally, if you think getting stared at by strangers while crying is awkward, try sneezing in public in the midst of a pandemic. People were glaring at me.

We weren’t able to visit the White House Visitor’s Center because that was to be the last day it was open during our stay and I just wasn’t up to it. Of course the White House was off limits, and thanks to the insurrectionists, we couldn’t even peek at the Capitol Rotunda.

That night, once we figured out I wasn’t going to drop dead, I slept and DH biked around the city, taking night pictures, as we had done by car the night before. Washington DC is stunningly beautiful after dark. Here are some of the pictures we took.

Anyway, the next day I was fine. We wound up getting around town via Uber and Metro, which cost more than we had hoped to spend, but that’s the nature of travel, isn’t it? Expect the unexpected.

So, let’s start again. The Library of Congress is located behind the now inaccessible Capitol building, so this picture is as close as we got to Congress on this trip. We also went past a cute Little Free Library, so naturally we took pictures of it, too. Sadly, we no longer had any books to drop off, but that turned out to be just as well, because on closer inspection it was a Little Free Art Gallery. What a nifty idea.

We finally got to the Library of Congress, and we threw ourselves on their mercy, because quite obviously we hadn’t made our appointment. They took pity and let us in anyway. I’m forever grateful.

I have always been in awe of the very concept of this building. It is the biggest library in the entire world. It contains some 170 million Items. I once visited the Library at Harvard, because a friend loaned me a student ID and I was able to sneak in. It contains 18.9 million items, and I was overwhelmed. So the Library of Congress collection is beyond all comprehension, as far as I am concerned.

The library is housed in three buildings on Capitol Hill, plus a conservation center in Virginia, and some off-site storage facilities. The three buildings in DC are connected by underground passageways, but we only explored the Thomas Jefferson Building. It’s the oldest of the three, and opened in 1897.

Even though the library is open to the public for research, mere mortals can’t actually take the any of the materials from the building. Only high-ranking government officials and library employees get to do that. Naturally, anyone can visit their fascinating and comprehensive website. Since I was exploring that site, I searched for my book, but no, they don’t have it. Is it arrogant of me to contact them and ask them to include it in their collection? Too late! I just did. And was promptly rejected. But I digress.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, the Jefferson Building. The architecture alone makes it worth the visit. And I love what they’ve done with some of the statuary.

The very first display I came upon was the Gutenberg Bible. It made me weak in the knees. The first book printed with movable type, which paved the way for every other printed book on the planet, was right in front of me. There are only four intact copies of this book printed on velum in the world, and this was one of them. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life.

Because I assumed people would think I was nuts if I just camped out in front of the Gutenberg Bible for the rest of the day, and because Dear Husband is not one for sitting still, we went into another room to check out an exhibit called “Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote.”  Women’s Suffrage is a subject near and dear to my heart, so this exhibit was fascinating, and deserving of a blog post all its own. Rest assured, it’s on my to do list.

Next we walked into the Thomas Jefferson collection, which I consider to be a hallowed hall. It is, for all intents and purposes, the beginning of the Library of Congress. I never thought I’d lay eyes on this collection myself.

The Library of Congress was first established by President John Adams in the year 1800. Thomas Jefferson was president from 1801 to 1809. By 1814, the library had about 3000 volumes, which the British promptly burned in that same year. At that time, Jefferson had the largest personal collection of books in the country. He sold it to congress for $23,950 in 1815, which, according to an online inflation calculator, is equivalent to $430,149.78 today.

The purchase was controversial, as Daniel Webster said that some of the books were “of an atheistical, irreligious, and immoral tendency.” Nevertheless, it was a wise acquisition, because with these 6,487 volumes, the library had more than doubled in size. Sadly, another fire in 1851 destroyed about 2/3rds of this original collection. What I was looking at now was the third that survived, plus identical copies of the burned books that the library has been slowly tracking down and assembling over time. The original volumes have ribbons in one color, and the replacements in another, so you can distinguish between the two sets.

In this age of COVID, no volunteer docents were physically present, but the library has gotten around this problem by having TV screens in each exhibit that show the docents live. You step up to the screen, ask your question, and the docent, who is heaven knows where, responds. I asked my digital docent which book, of all in this collection, surprised him the most. He responded that he was impressed by the fact that Jefferson owned a copy of the Koran. The former president was fascinated with it because he had often heard it referred to in books of Arabic law. Jefferson was very enlightened for this period in history. I’m willing to bet that for every 1,000 modern Americans who attempt to criticize this book, only 1 has bothered to read it, which is why I find those criticisms laughable. (Yes, I have a copy of the Koran. No, I haven’t read it. Yet. Baby steps. I haven’t ever read the Bible all the way through, either. They are both rather hefty reads.)

Bidding adieu to the eclectic mind of Thomas Jefferson, we moved on to the next exhibit, entitled Rosa Parks in Her Own Words. Watching her speak on camera made me realize that I had never heard her actual voice before. I was fascinated. This is another exhibit that deserves its own blog post. But I will say this: I was taught growing up that Rosa Parks was a seamstress who was really tired one day and refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, and from there the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and by extension the Civil Rights Movement as we know it, was born.

In fact, her decision was far from spur of the moment. She had been an activist her entire life. She knew exactly what she was doing. I look forward to writing about this admirable woman in more detail soon. I have the Library of Congress to thank for teaching me that she was much more formidable than she was footsore.

Next came an exhibit that warmed the cockles of my Latin American Studies major heart. Entitled, “Exploring the Early Americas,” it was a fascinating collection of indigenous artifacts that really ought to be repatriated to their original countries, but hey, I’m glad I got to check out the loot.

I was particularly intrigued by the exhibit called “Mapping a Growing Nation”. I do love maps, particularly old ones that people clearly worked hard on but got entirely wrong. I zeroed right in on the maps of St. Augustine, Florida, because I lived and studied there for four years. The errors were too numerous to mention, but the maps were still works of art.

Before leaving, we had a chance to gaze down into the world famous room where people do their research when visiting the library. I can’t help but wonder how often Ruth Bader Ginsburg visited this place. Did she have a favorite table? What other famous people in the past century have had their questions answered here?

There is so much to see in Washington DC that we had to move on. Our next destination was the Natural History Museum, the subject of the next Exploring DC post. But I have to say it was hard leaving our nation’s most extensive library, just as it’s hard for me to leave any library, even my little free one.

Why? I’ll leave you with a quote emblazoned in gold leaf on a wall of the Library of Congress. “Ignorance is the curse of God. Knowledge the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.”

If only everyone understood this.

Get my book before the Library of Congress snaps it up and I become all famous and stuff. http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5


Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

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