D.C.’s Library of Congress (101 Independence Ave SE, Washington DC) is arguably the most visually striking library in the world. But in terms of sheer size, there’s no argument. At nearly 35 million catalogued books, this is it — The Big Kahuna.
The library’s three buildings — named after U.S. presidents Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison — are considered by many to be works of art, and their beauty is the primary reason for our visit to these historic grounds. The interiors of these structures are widely considered to be the most ornate in the U.S., with intricate detail work and sculptures more often reserved for places of worship rather than book nooks.
With good reason, the Thomas Jefferson Building has a kind of federal government quality to it. Actually, the only people who can check out books here work for the government, notably Members of Congress and Supreme Court justices.
The Jefferson Building is the oldest (1800) and grandest of the three buildings. It’s considered the library’s main building. Library staff offers free, daily one-hour tours that explore the majestic building’s symbolic art and architecture. Self-guided tours are also available.
In its description of the Jefferson Building, the library’s tour brochure states that “although books are the heart of the Library…the Library supports research in its Main Reading Room and in 21 specialty reading rooms; archives millions of priceless objects, including the papers of key figures from around the world; gives a stage to performances of all kinds; creates exhibitions that explore historic and cultural themes; produces a wide range of books and teaching materials; and is a global leader in the science of preservation and information management.”
While you won’t be checking them out anytime soon, the Library of Congress, of course, has some very special holdings in its collection. Famously, the library boasts a rough copy of the Declaration of Independence (go see it, get inspired!) and a Gutenberg Bible that’s one of just four vellum copies known to exist (go see it, get inspired!).
Just over a decade ago, an $80-million restoration returned portions of the library to its original state.
Interestingly, Thomas Jefferson sold thousands of books from his personal collection to the library after much of the original collection had been destroyed during the War of 1812.
The James Madison Memorial Building is located between First and Second Streets on Independence Avenue SE; the John Adams Building is located between Independence Avenue and East Capitol Street on 2nd Street SE; the Thomas Jefferson Building is located between Independence Avenue and East Capitol Street on First Street SE.