Brandon Wetherbee and I are staring at yards upon yards of card catalog cabinets, in a long hallway, dimly lit by fluorescent lights, about twenty feet under Independence Ave. We’re inside a building re-built from the shreds of what survived the Burning of Washington two centuries ago. Along with the card catalog cabinets, this building holds the Magna Carta, a Gutenberg bible, George Gershwin’s piano, the only portrait Beethoven ever sat for, and a copy of almost every book ever printed. And I’m shooting as fast as I possibly can.
We were following two guides at a quick pace. Jennifer and Nicolas directed us through hallways and spiral staircases, into maintenance-only rooms and service elevators, into empty courtyards and long-untouched collections. We were walking quick, whipping in and out of different departments at breakneck speed. The Library was closing at 5.
There is physically too much here for either of us to see. There’s actually too much here for a staff of hundreds to see. Librarians are constantly archiving, counting, preserving, and organizing millions of volumes a day. And that’s barely scratching the surface of how much the Library of Congress has in its collections. Neither of our guides know exactly how many sub-basements there are.
Every inch of this behemoth of an institution is stuffed with knowledge. I thought the windows above the gilded Great Hall of the Jefferson Building led to a service walkway. They don’t. They lead to the Poetry Center, where the Poet Laureate has an office. They have a guestbook signed by some of their more noted guests. I got to touch Robert Frost’s signature.
The Jefferson Building is named after the president who donated his own personal library to congress after the English torched the city. This collection is still on display. Other presidents have followed in his stead, donating their private libraries to the Library of Congress. Jennifer mentioned this as an afterthought, as we hurried down a hallway– “Oh, and these books were once Woodrow Wilson’s.”
Down below, in one of the massive reading rooms, a librarian was examining a piece of sheet music, comparing the page to another, examining all of the inconsistencies. I asked her how old that particular piece, and she shrugged, “17th Century.” I blurted out an exclamation, and she replied “This is nothing. Want to see something really old?” She pulled out a long box, made of acid-free paper, and began to remove its contents, page by page. She had compiled this miniature collection-within-a-collection to illustrate the history of musical notation. Over the pages, and over the centuries, the researchers can see squiggles and lines above lyrics evolving into the staff, clef, and time signatures we know today.
But, what I find most striking about the Library of Congress is not how much they have behind their doors, but how it is all available to the public. The Library of Congress is not just an archive, or a compendium of knowledge. All of the knowledge within the very brick and mortar of the building (or archived away in Culpepper, one of the Library’s satellite locations) is meant to be disseminated to the public, for free.
All of the books, words, music, and knowledge you could ever read are just beyond the front door, and it won’t cost you a dime. They still close at 5pm, though, and you’ll still have to use your inside voice.