I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Library of Congress might be the most underrated attraction in Washington, D.C. I looked up several top ten must-see lists for D.C. and didn’t find it on any of them. And you can’t blame most visitors for not putting it on their itinerary. Its stated mission is “to support the Congress in fulfilling its constitutional duties and to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.” That doesn’t sound like a fascinating destination, and certainly not a place to take your kids, right? Wrong!!!
So why did I take my kids to a place I thought would be boring? Curiosity, I suppose. As part of the process of publishing my book, I had to obtain a Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN) for it; then after printing, I had to send two copies off to the Library of Congress. When I found out tours were available, I thought I’d go see the building where two of my books were residing. I didn’t expect to find it so fascinating. When we arrived for our tour, the tour guide welcomed us “to the most beautiful building in Washington, D.C.” I was very surprised by that comment. I could think of only two possibilities: either they were trying to compensate for an inferiority complex, or it really was the most beautiful building. It didn’t take very long into the tour to be convinced that it was the latter. After a brief introductory film, we began our tour and were oohing and aahing within minutes.
Are you wondering how they conduct a guided group tour in a building where everyone is supposed to be quiet? They have an ideal system. Tour participants wear headphones that are plugged into receivers worn around the neck. The tour guide speaks into a microphone and the signal is transmitted to the receivers. Tour participants can adjust the volume with a dial on the receiver. As someone who is slightly hard of hearing and sometimes has trouble hearing tour guides if I’m not up front, I can tell you this worked very well.
The tour focused more on the architecture of the building than on the books themselves. My daughter noted that almost every surface was beautifully decorated, including ceilings, floors, and stair railings.
Here’s a ceiling:
A floor medallion:
And a stair railing:
The details are amazing, not only because of the craftsmanship, but because of the themes and symbolism. All of the details relate to reading and knowledge. While you could appreciate the beauty without a formal tour, the tour guides point out details and tell you facts that you wouldn’t notice otherwise. Murals and mosaics adorned the walls and sculptural details embellished the ceilings. It felt more like a palace than a library. Check out this stunning mosaic of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and the arts.
Here’s a closeup of her list of fields of study:
The ceiling of the Great Hall is amazing.
And here’s what one of the corners looks like up close:
I don’t anticipate ever entering politics, but I think if I were in Congress, I would have to find as many excuses as possible to do research so I could spend hours and hours in this building.
Here’s one of the murals.
And look at the intricate detail on this arch:
During your tour you will also see an original Gutenberg Bible on display. It is one of only three complete copies in the world printed on vellum.
The entire tour takes about an hour. My 12 and 14-year-old kids both loved the tour. My 10-year-old enjoyed the architecture, but didn’t find the commentary as interesting as the older two did.
We scheduled our tour through our Senator’s office, but according to the Library of Congress website, advance reservations are not necessary. The website also states Family Tours are offered during holidays and peak periods that is ideal for kids ages six to fourteen.
You do not need to take a guided tour to see the library. Any visitor can see the Great Hall and exhibitions. Only researchers can enter the reading rooms. Parents with children with shorter attention spans might want to do a self-guided tour, then stop in the Young Readers Center. This page on the website has more information about family programs, resources for self-guided tours, and more. Be sure to print out this activity sheet for kids before your visit.
I highly recommend the guided tour, but also wish we had allotted an extra hour to explore the library on our own.
Ready to visit?
Library of Congress – Thomas Jefferson Building
10 First Street SE
Washington, DC 20540
Great Hall and Exhibitions
Monday – Saturday
8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas and New Years Holidays.
The closest Metro stations are Capitol South (Blue/Orange Line – a two-block walk) and Union Station (Red Line – a half-mile walk).
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