A Semi-Public Space: The Library of Congress

Over the course of the blog, I have talked about spaces that are primarily public spaces. While the museums I have written about could often be classified as semi-public spaces due to the restricted access to some areas, I have chosen to think of them as public spaces because the main reasons to visit are for the public areas. Today, I would like to talk about one of my favorite buildings in DC, the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, which I am classifying as a semi-public space.

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The Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress

During the late spring and summer, I spent many nights and Saturdays wholed-up in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress (LoC). I was studying for the GRE at the time and found that the Jefferson Building was within walking distance from my apartment. In addition, it is free to get a Reader Card in order to access the library’s reading rooms. At first, I requested books because the LoC website clearly states that you should only use their reading rooms if you are conducting research and I was scared they would kick me out…which never happened.

I love the Main Reading Room. It’s one of those spaces where you can experience the grandeur of DC and still use the room the way it was originally intended. During my frequent visits, I would go in and set up my computer and study space at one of the desks that are attached in curved groups. After I was settled, I would log onto the Library of Congress Catalog and request a book. A little less than an hour later, a librarian would deliver the book to my work area. The first couple times it definitely felt like a surreal, extremely nerdy experience. As an avid reader, reading a book in the LoC was a dream come true. Overall, those months were a great experience and going to the Reading Room definitely kept me focused on studying much the same way my study carrel in my college’s library helped me focus and finish my thesis.

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A glimpse at the Main Reading Room.

Now that I have spoken of my love of the Reading Room, I have a confession.

Until this past Saturday, I had never actually looked around the more public spaces of the building. I planned my arrival in time to take the tour. As expected, the rest of the building is just as grand as the Main Reading Room. Unfortunately, more the half of the building is restricted access [see map below]. Here’s how the Library of Congress works as far as I can tell:

  1. The grand hallways and rooms in the front half of the building are completely open to the public. This is where you can see the Gutenberg Bible, Jefferson’s Library and a few other exhibits. There is also a viewing area to see the Main Reading Room.
  2. The Main Reading Room and other reading rooms are open to those members of the public who decide to register for a Reader Card. I only ever went to the Main Reading Room when I visited.
  3. The rest of the building is restricted to employees and houses offices and books.

In a way it seemed more museum-like than the other museums I have written about (the Renwick encourages interaction through photographs the National Portrait Gallery hosts events in its courtyard). You go to the LoC to look around at the magnificent murals, carvings, and mosaics; see Jefferson’s library, the Gutenberg Bible, etc.; and then you leave.

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The LoC has not been designed for multiple uses. It was designed to be a grand library and it fulfills that promise spectacularly. The rooms that are open to the public are exquisite and ornate halls rooms with lots of decoration and symbolism of knowledge, innovation, and great thinkers. On the tour, I learned that the Jefferson Building was the first public building in DC to be built with electric lighting and the designers made a specific choice to leave the light bulbs bare instead of covering them to highlight American invention.

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Bare Lightbulbs

The visitors to the library are either researchers who head straight to the maze that leads to the reading rooms or tourists looking to see the largest library in the world. There is very little interaction between the two groups. Everyone who goes to the library is a visitor. Even researchers have strict guidelines regarding what they can bring into the library. The space is sacred to DC, but it does not foster a sense of community.

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