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!).
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.
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.
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).
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.
My favorite detail are the two boys, reading peacefully under all this commotion. Here’s one of them:
The 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?
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.