Visiting the Library of Congress Reading Room

Twice a year–usually on Presidents’ Day (February) and Columbus Day (October)–the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress Jefferson Building opens to the public.

The Jefferson Building is impressive on any day (here is what it’s like to visit), but, unless you have a Reader Registration Card, the Main Reading Room is accessible only from the Visitor Gallery on the third floor. As you stand on the balcony behind the glass, half of the ornate hall opens up before you, a celebration of knowledge and its heroes. Photography is not allowed in the Visitor Gallery–unless, of course, it’s open house (more reason to visit then!).

Jefferson Building Main Reading Room view from above

The view of the Main Reading Room from the Visitor Gallery: The large white statues by the stained glass windows are personifications of 8 fields of knowledge–art, history, philosophy, science, law, poetry, religion, and commerce. Beneath them are 16 bronze statues of “heroes of knowledge”: Plato, Shakespeare, Bacon. In the Visitor Gallery, you watch the room alongside Newton and Moses.

Beethoven, Main Reading Room, Library of Congress

Beethoven (Art)

Two impressive features are not visible from your perch in the Visitor Gallery: the ornate dome and the great clock over the Reading Room’s entrance, so, really, the Open House is the time to come.

Dome above Main Reading Room, Jefferson Building, Library of Congress, Washington, DC

Golden and bright, the dome soars over you as you enter the hall, presided over by a young woman lifting her veil–she represents human understanding.

Dome of the Main Reading Room, Jefferson Building, Library of Congress

Encircling her are twelve figures by  master muralist Edwin Howland Blashfield, each an incarnation of a country, a culture, or an epoch that Blashfield thought contributed most to the rise of America’s Gilded Age: Egypt (written records), Judea (religion), Greece (philosophy), Rome (administration), Islam (physics), the Middle Ages (modern languages), Italy (art), Germany (printing), Spain (discovery), England (literature), France (emancipation), and, the culmination of it all, America (standing in for science and represented by an engineer with an electric dynamo at his feet and a face of young Abraham Lincoln).

Mural in the dome of the Main Reading Room, Jefferson Building, Library of Congress

The Evolution of Civilization by Edwin Howland Blashfield

The clock, though, is the visual centerpiece of the hall. When the Jefferson Building opened to the public in 1897, Herbert Small, author of its official guide, described this as “one of the most sumptuous and magnificent pieces of decoration in the library.” Called John Flanagan’s Clock after its sculptor (you may carry another of Flanagan’s creations in your wallet–the Washington quarter was designed by him), it is dominated by the winged figure of Father Time, his hour glass and scythe looming over the Reading Room’s entrance.

John Flanagan's Clock, Main Reading Room, Jefferson Building

The view you won’t see unless to enter the Reading Room: Mr. Flanagan’s Clock and, underneath the stained glass window, the glassed-off balcony of the Visitor Gallery

Father Time, detail of John Flanagan Clock, Jefferson Building, LOCMy favorite detail are the two boys, reading peacefully under all this commotion.  Here’s one of them:

Readers, detail of John Flanagan's clock, Main Reading Room, Jefferson Building, Library of Congress

Main Reading Room, Library of CongressThe open house is a popular affair, so there are lines, but they move quickly. During our visit, there was a lot of confusion in the Great Hall, the ante-chamber to the Main Reading Room, but it was all worth the shuffle. Inside, librarians will answer your questions about the building, some of its specialized collections, and obtaining your Reader Registration Card. I will definitely get the card one day. Researching in this grand hall, surrounded by its 70,000 reference volumes, will be an afternoon to remember. Don’t you think?

Book stacks, Main Reading Room, Jefferson Building, Library of Congress

For more impressions of visiting the Jefferson Building and the Main Reading Room, see Ania’s Sandstone and Amber. Ania was lucky to browse another fascinating spot in the library, the Main Card Catalog, with its breathtaking 22 million records–that area was not accessible on our visited.

Read on: 

13 thoughts on “Visiting the Library of Congress Reading Room

  1. Pingback: At the Library of Congress: a Symphony in Gold and Marble | Transplanted Tatar

    • Thank you! I kept missing it for years as well. Really wonderful, but I would really like to get the actual card and visit the room on a regular day, without all the crowds, and lines, and the commotion.

  2. Wow – what an amazing place. I would love to visit someday. It is sad that people seem to be losing the pleasure of reading though. I’m glad to hear there were enough people wanting to visit that there was a line.

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