The Nation’s Knowledge: Library of Congress

The Great Tours: Washington, D.C.—Lecture Five Guide

The Library of Congress consists of five facilities that contain 167 million cataloged items. That number grows by a mind-boggling 12,000 to 15,000 items every day. Delve into the world’s largest library and take a virtual tour of the American literary landscape.

In this guide, we will discuss:
• The Thomas Jefferson Building
• The John Adams Building
• The James Madison Memorial Building
• Research at the Library of Congress
• The National Book Festival

The Location of the Library of Congress

The three main buildings of the Library of Congress are found on Capitol Hill.

instructional gif for blue and green links in The Great Tours DC articles

They are just across the street from both the Capitol and Supreme Court, on 1st Street SE between East Capitol Street and Independence Avenue.

(The library’s other buildings are off‑site storage facilities in Virginia and Maryland.)

The three main buildings are named for the three early presidents who are responsible for the existence of the library: James Madison, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.

The Thomas Jefferson Building

Thomas Jefferson Building entrance, Library of Congress
The Thomas Jefferson Building entrance, Library of Congress

The Thomas Jefferson Building is a gorgeous, monumental structure in the Beaux Arts style, modeled on some of the great public libraries of Europe and the old Paris Opera House. It was designed by Paul Johannes Pelz, an immigrant from Silesia, a German-speaking region of what is now Poland. No surface is left undecorated, and you can see this as you approach the building from 1st Street. The first thing you come upon is The Court of Neptune Fountain, sculpted by Ronald Hinton Perry.

The structure of the building looks similar in shape to the Capitol across the street, at least at first. Wide sweeping staircases on either side of the fountain lead up to a brick plaza, another ornate staircase, and an arched entryway. The building is an open square, with a domed octagonal tower in the center, connected to the perimeter by corridors. The interior of the square is divided into what were once four courtyards. Over the years, two of the courtyards have been filled to make room for more books. The third now contains a recital hall. Only the fourth remains.

All entryway arches are decorated with allegorical figures representing literature, science, and art. The 14-foot-tall bronze doors beneath the arches also contain allegorical sculptures, representing tradition, printing, and writing.

In the nine windows on the second floor are nine busts of great authors. From left to right, they are Demosthenes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington Irving, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Babbington Macaulay, Nathanial Hawthorne, Sir Walter Scott, and Dante.

Next, you will step inside to the Great Hall. Almost every inch of the hall is decorated, including the inlaid marble floors, sculpted arches, columns, spandrels, balustrades, walls, and ceiling.

Beyond that is the Main Reading Room. Here, you will find books, desks, and librarians working at the reference desk. You will also see more stunning Beaux Arts decoration. If you do not have a lot of time to visit the Library of Congress when you come to D.C., it is still worth stopping in just to see the Main Reading Room and the Great Hall.

If you want to see more of the Jefferson Building, the library offers several types of tours. Brochures are available for self-guided tours. You can pick up a copy in English at the information desk, or you can download a copy in English, and about a dozen other languages, from the library’s website. More languages are being added all the time.

There are also several different guided tours available. Tours of the Thomas Jefferson Building, covering its history and architecture, take about an hour and are available Monday through Saturday. Specialty tours covering a particular subject—such as colonial history, or military history, or sports history—each have their own schedule, and it is best to check the website for hours, times, and subjects.

The Collection of the Library of Congress
The Library of Congress contains 39 million books and other printed materials, 3.6 million recordings, 14.8 million photographs, 5.5 million maps, 8.1 million pieces of sheet music, and 72 million manuscripts. These materials are stored on 838 miles of shelves.

The John Adams Building

Library of Congress, John Adams Building with American flags
The figures on the doors of the John Adams Building represent the mythological inventors of the world’s writing systems.

The John Adams Building combines Neoclassical and Art Deco elements. The exterior is white marble, but simplified and streamlined compared to other federal buildings. The figures on the bronze doors are less realistic and more geometric. They represent the mythological inventors of the world’s writing systems, such as the Egyptian god Thoth, the Norse god Odin, and the Mayan god Itzamna.

The showpieces of the building are the fifth floor’s North and South Reading Rooms and their Ezra Winter murals. The murals in the North Reading Room feature Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales pilgrims. The South Reading Room murals are called the Jefferson Murals, because they were inspired by Jefferson’s writings on topics like freedom, education, and good governance.

The James Madison Memorial Building

The James Madison Memorial Building is the only memorial to America’s fourth president in D.C. This building was constructed during the 1960s and 1970s and opened in 1980, and lies south of the Jefferson Building, right across Independence Avenue.

The building’s style is distinctly mid-century modern, but it echoes the city’s Neoclassical roots in its white marble facade and columned entrance. The information kiosk out front matches the Thomas Jefferson Building’s octagonal tower and dome. Inside, to the left of the main entrance, is the James Madison Memorial Hall, featuring eight inscriptions from Madison’s writings and a white marble sculpture of Madison. The building also features a ground-floor snack bar and sixth-floor cafeteria, both open to the public.

Research at the Library of Congress

Library of congress desks and books
When visiting the Library of Congress, if you need to get from one room to another to find what you need, a set of underground tunnels connect the three buildings to one another.

Research at the Library of Congress is a different experience from visiting your local public library, or even most university libraries.

First, you will need to obtain a reader identification card. You can obtain these cards in person at the reader registration offices in the Jefferson and Madison Buildings. You will need to be at least 16 years old and bring a valid photo ID, but registration is free, and you will get your card in minutes and be on your way.

Second, although there are a few shelves in each of the reading rooms where you can simply walk up and take the book you need, most of the library’s volumes are in closed stacks. That means that once you find the catalog entry for the book you need, you will need to submit a request to the nearest circulation desk, and the staff will go get it for you.

Third, while most researchers settle down in one of the main reading rooms, the library also contains a number of specialty reading rooms on all sorts of topics. For example, there are rooms for international language collections, children’s literature, performing arts, braille and audio materials, and so on.

If you need to get from one room to another to find what you need, a set of underground tunnels connect the three buildings to one another. These tunnels will help you avoid traffic and bad weather as you make your way to your destination.

If you would like to look through the library’s collections, particularly the image collections, but cannot make it to D.C., the Library of Congress website offers access to the library’s digitized collections. The digitized collections are a work in progress—more than 100 million items take a long time to digitize—but they are worth a look, even out of casual interest, especially for historic maps and photos.

The National Book Festival

National Book Festival held by the Library of Congress. Tents and Washington Monument in background
The National Book Festival occurs in D.C. each Memorial Day weekend.

If you are lucky enough to visit D.C. around Labor Day weekend, you will get a chance to take part in the biggest event of the year for the Library of Congress: the National Book Festival. It takes place at the Washington Convention Center and hosts signings, readings, and panel discussions with authors. There are also family activities and special exhibitions. If you are interested in the festival, check out the Library of Congress’s website for links to the festival schedule and participating authors, plus social media links to keep you up to date.

Use these online resources to help plan your trip.
Library of Congress Website
Visiting the Thomas Jefferson Building
Visiting the John Adams Building
Visiting the James Madison Memorial Building
The National Book Festival