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▫ Some 745 miles of shelves in three buildings on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., house the Library of Congress’ bounty of books and other materials. Visitors should head for the Thomas Jefferson Building, where a visual extravaganza awaits.

 The Library was initially located in a boarding house after its founding in 1800 and was later moved to the U.S. Capitol. Its first permanent building—bearing former president Jefferson’s moniker—opened in 1897, making it the oldest federal cultural institution in the country.

▫ Why does Jefferson have the honors? After British troops burned the Capitol building and destroyed the library’s core collection of 3,000 volumes, Congress approved the purchase of Jefferson’s personal library—6,487 books bought for $23,950. The volumes that Jefferson originally contributed are on display (southwest pavilion, second floor).

▫ A bibliophile could move in and be right at home in the dazzling, octagon-shaped Reading Room (photo top row, center). It’s spacious (several stories high); gorgeously decorated with golden-color marble columns, statues of writers, artists, and thinkers like Michelangelo and Shakespeare, and a Renaissance-style dome; and has plenty of reading material. The Reading Room can be viewed from an upper level platform called the Overlook. Standing behind a clear plastic partition takes away some of the grandeur, but it’s still an impressive sight.

▫ Let there be light. The library’s light bulb budget is $100,000 a year.

▫ Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, is one of the images adorning the Thomas Jefferson Building’s main chamber. The Great Hall soars 75 feet, rising from a marble floor to a stained glass ceiling. Take some time to soak up the splendor of the Great Hall. Look up, down, and sideways, or you’ll miss its nuances. Woven into the eye-catching display of mosaics, statues, paintings, and decorative details—some of it drawing on the Italian Renaissance style—are themes of literature, music, philosophy, education, and architecture, along with references to the zodiac and mythology and tributes to other countries.

▫ The Guttenberg Bible, on display in the Great Hall, is one of a three-volume set. To reduce wear and tear on the fragile documents, it’s changed out periodically—under armed guard.

▫ Size matters. The collection contains nearly 145 million items, making it the largest library in the world. Of those, 31 million are bound books (including Novel Destinations). The rest are films, photos, prints, maps, manuscripts, and sheet music. About half of the books and serials are in languages other than English.

▫ Pick and choose. Every day the library receives 22,000 new items, approximately 10,000 of which are added to the collection. 

▫ It’s well worth the time to take a free 45-minute, docent-led tour. It gives a fascinating, more in-depth perspective than strolling through the building on your own (I’ve done both). Learn about the library’s creation and collection, as well as its impressive architectural details. Tours are given several times daily Monday through Saturday, and there’s no need to reserve a spot. Even if 50 or 60 people show up, guides break tour-goers into smaller groups.

▫ Only members of Congress and their staff can check out books. The rest of us can view the digital collection online.

–Shannon McKenna Schmidt