As the oldest federal library in America (dating back to 1800) and the second-largest in the world, Washington D.C.’s Library of Congress is home to millions of literary masterpieces and has an interesting history. We started the visit by entering the Thomas Jefferson building, the center of the library, to participate in a guided tour.
The first area the tour covered was the Great Hall, where a resplendent Christmas tree with book-shaped ornaments was set up for the holiday season. The guide summarized the building’s history, followed by an explanation of artistic aspects of the room. For example, two sculptures of infants that adorned either side of the room symbolized racial diversity: each pair was separated by a globe, and all four had their hands placed on their respective home countries. Under them, bronze and marble busts rested in niches. More babies were carved into the banisters, surrounded by objects representing technology, agriculture, and the arts. The stairs led to an array of tall marble columns on the second floor, which appeared to be hiding multiple doorways to exhibitions.
The guide then led us through a set of marble arches, entering the Lobby to the Main Reading Room. She explained to us the meanings of the five murals painted high on the walls–anarchy, corruption, stable government, justice, and utopia. We were even allowed a glimpse into the next room: the famous Main Reading Room, where most of the library’s over 100 million works are shelved.
Next, we ascended a different set of stairs that ended with the mosaic “Minerva of Peace.” We arrived at the second level, where we were greeted by interactive displays and several exhibits. We entered a room that harbored Thomas Jefferson’s personal library, containing an impressive 6,487 multilingual volumes that he had collected on his travels. He had sold them to the Library of Congress in order to replace those burned by the British in the War of 1812.
After taking a look at a few more exhibits, we filed into the viewing booth of the circular Main Reading Room and were immediately astonished. Eight towering columns bordered the area, topped by marble statues which symbolized philosophy, art, history, commerce, religion, science, law, and poetry. The room itself was three stories: the first, with the desks, was backed by doorways revealing endless shelves of books. The second was a dimly lit, circular hallway around the room, which seemed to be for onlookers. The third was surrounded by eight pairs of bronze statues (two men exemplifying each of the topics mentioned above.) Above the third floor were semicircular windows embellished with the seals of the fifty states. The entire room was topped by a dome, which was covered by Edwin H. Blashfield’s renowned mural entitled “Human Understanding.” This depicts, in human form, the twelve countries or epochs which the artist felt had influenced America the most.
Article written by Angela Dong.