Have you ever been somewhere that felt too wonderful to be real? Too impossible to be seen? Too magical to exist? I have. Yesterday.
The Library of Congress is gorgeous, even just from the outside. Above the front entrance are the busts of famous writers, Benjamin Franklin in the center as per the designer’s preference, and they look with unblinking eyes over the Capitol and beyond, over the nation, watching and thinking and turning thoughts into written words for all to read, and see what they have seen. On the ceiling inside are murals and designs so intricate and colorful that the neat, plain rectangular panes at regular intervals are easy to pick out. On them are printed in gold lettering the names not of kings or politicians or soldiers, but of writers. An entire building the beauty of which is dedicated to writers! Who has seen such a thing? WHITMAN, POE, LONGFELLOW, MILTON… so many names; poets in some rooms and thinkers in others. Passing underneath a high archway nothing more beautiful could await, one thinks, until it does. Two upright glass cases face each other, the books behind them much larger than any that would fit on today’s shelves. One is printed, the other an illuminated manuscript. Their names? The Gutenberg Bible, and the Giant Bible of Mainz.
Upstairs there are exhibits, with documents and artifacts and portraits of Civil War folk, but all the while there are books which run on shelves above a ledge that runs along the ceiling. And then there is Thomas Jefferson’s library. Reconstructed, of course, but over 6,000 books, from the approximately 6,500 that made up his personal collection, which he sold to Congress, beginning the Library which now holds over 35 million books.
Which leads to the main Reading Room. You can’t go in, but you can see in, and ohmygoodness there are books! Just the ones you can see from that little window must number in the hundreds of thousands, and that’s not even close to how many there are in the huge rooms that branch off from this main reading room.
Then there are tunnels, under ground which lead to the other two buildings that the Library has, which you must have clearance to enter. How comforting it is to know that in an increasingly digital age, there are so many books safe in their very own castle. The tunnels are dimly lit, full of tucked away supplies, custodial closets, and vending machines. They seem to go along forever, exposed computer wires overhead and grungy tile underfoot. But an air of mystery is added to the grandeur of the building upstairs, and in mind and memory the Library becomes a place of magic.