Library of Congress: Architecture, History, and Research

I always knew The Library of Congress was an architectural wonder in our city’s backyard. But it wasn’t until recently that I had the chance to immerse myself in its true beauty and history.  The gorgeous sculptures and traditional columns on the exterior immediately set the stage when we arrived. Inside, the rotunda exposes high ceilings and grand staircases with intricate sculptures and paintings covering every open space. Plus, the views of the Capitol are second to none. That said, actually touring the Library of Congress exposes the enormous breadth history the building holds. So what should you expect and how can you get the most out of your visit? 

What is the Library of Congress? 

The Library of Congress was built in 1800 for – you guessed it – Congress. Our tour guide affectionately referred to the library as the “Google for Congress.” Even though Congress has many more resources today, the library remains a valuable source of information. It is also the largest library in the world with 164 million items and serves as a public library for the America people. 

Where is it? 

The library was originally housed in the US Capitol so that congresspeople could access it easily. In 1897, The Thomas Jefferson Building was built across the street to make room for more books and research.  Today, the library consists of two additional buildings: The John Adams Building (1938) and The James Madison Building (1981).  There are also two storage facilities in Fort Meade, Maryland (2002) and Culpeper, Virginia (2007).  

What will I see on my visit?

While the library serves as a research facility, there are also rotating exhibits and tours open to the public in The Thomas Jefferson Building.  Exhibits during our visit included ancient Native American culture, World War I, politics, and the 1507 world map that shows our continent named “America” for the first time. Guests are free to explore exhibits on their own but we found the tour helpful to better appreciate the architecture. 

In my opinion, the most impressive exhibit is Thomas Jefferson’s library. Jefferson strongly believed knowledge of a variety of topics was essential for success.  Because of this, he maintained a large personal collection of books even after his presidency. Our guide explained that a fire in the Capitol caused by British troops in 1814 destroyed most of the original library’s collection. After the fire, Jefferson offered to sell his personal collection of books to Congress to help rebuild the library.  He insisted the entire collection be accepted and did not allow any cherry picking. 

Unfortunately in 1851, another fire broke out, destroying two thirds of Jefferson’s books. The library has kept the surviving books and continues to look for replacements printed during that era. In the library today, Jefferson’s books are arranged in circular shelves as they would have been arranged in his private office. 

Tours of the Library of Congress are Monday to Saturday and leave about every hour on the half hour. The website says the tours are an hour, but the one we attended was 90 minutes.  They are very popular so plan to arrive about 30 minutes early. 

Main reading room in the Library of Congress
Main reading room in the Library of Congress

Who can use the Library of Congress? 

The library continues to be an important resource for Congress.  We learned the library employees many bipartisan analysts who help research a variety of topics for the congresspeople. The library’s resources are also open to the public and anyone can use the reading rooms located across the three buildings. However, since resources often require time to be pulled, it helps to have a research question.  Most of the library’s resources are available digitally so if you are just browsing, check out the library online. 

Fast Facts 

Estimated time to see the exhibits: 2 to 3 hours. The highlights tour is 90 minutes. You may want to add time if you would like to take a more in-depth look at the exhibits. 

Where: 101 Independence Ave SE, Washington, DC 20540

Closest Metro Stop: Capitol South (orange, blue, silver) 

Food: Grab brunch or dinner nearby at Barrel or Mr. Henry’s. 

While You’re in the Neighborhood: Selfies with the Capitol building! The Library of Congress is right next to the Capitol building. (Where Congress hangs out, duh. ) Take some time to walk around and snap some pictures. 

About Kelley Smith 54 Articles
I'm Kelley Smith and I love sharing tips on how to best explore Washington, DC. I love pretty much anything I can eat plus really good beer and whiskey served by story telling bartenders. I also like sassy museum guides, photogenic architecture, and colorful urban gardens.

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