5 Tips for Visiting the Library of Congress in Washington DC
The Largest Library in the World is non-other than the Library of Congress in Washington DC. Never in my life had I ever said, I need to go there. That was until I stepped foot through the doors.
After visiting the Library of Congress nothing will ever compare to the experience. It has more art, sculptures, and script in one room than I have seen. And that was all without seeing a single book.
The history inside the doors could rival the White House, Smithsonians, and the National Archives put together. It contains the best parts of Washington DC wrapped up all in one location. I left with just one impression, Everyone Need To Visit the Library of Congress in Washington DC.
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What is the Library of Congress?
The Library of Congress holds more than 167 million items in 470 different languages. That includes 38 million books, 3.6 million recordings, 14 million photographs, 5.5 million maps, 8.1 million pieces of sheet music, and 70 million manuscripts.
It doesn’t contain every book published but that’s still an impressive collection. The Library of Congress is so big, that the books are housed in three different buildings in Washington DC and another annex in Virginia. There are tunnels in between the buildings, along with a tunnel to the US Capitol.
The library was first established in 1800 by President John Adams. He wanted to build a collection of books ‘as may be necessary for the use of Congress’. The initial collection of books was in the Capitol building.
In 1814 when the British invaded and burned down the building books and all. The library needed to be rebuilt. Thomas Jefferson agreed to sell his personal collection of books to refill the library’s collection.
Why would you want to visit a library on vacation?
Most of the time when you go to a library it’s to borrow a book or other material at a library. The majority of visitors to the Library of Congress go to view the library and the collection inside. From floor to ceiling there the place is impeccably designed.
As someone who can easily spend an hour in Barns and Noble or my local library browsing, the titles at the Library of Congress was amazing.
The only disappointing part was there were only a few books you can get close to while visiting the Library of Congress. The only exception was the Thomas Jefferson Collection.
Can anyone access the Library of Congress?
Yes, visiting the Library of Congress is like many other places in DC, where you can walk right in. No tickets are necessary. Inside you’ll be able o walk around, and view the exhibits, architecture, and more.
The only thing you can’t do is go inside the main bookroom. In order to go inside there, you’ll need to get special permission. If you plan on doing some research, you’ll need to contact the library in advance and they will assist you.
The Thomas Jefferson Collection
Thomas Jefferson’s original collection of books is in a separate area behind a glass display case. Sections of books are being digitized for online use.
His collection is vast. He collected works on poetry, philosophy, government, and everything in between. What’s amazing is what is on display is only a part of his collection.
Almost two-thirds of the 6,487 books were lost in the second fire in 1851. The library has created an amazing tribute to his collection.
The Gutenberg Bible
The Library of Congress is one of a handful of places in the US where you can view a Guttenberg Bible. The Guttenberg Bible actually wasn’t the first printed book with a metal movable typeface but it is the first one to use the technique in Western Europe.
The last time one was sold, it went for 5.5 million in 1987. When Guttenberg first started printing in the early 1450s, he made 180 bibles. Only 49 bibles survive today and are scattered around the world with a few around the United States.
The Bible is on display in the library on the first floor near the entrance. It is only one of four that were printed on vellum.
In addition to some staples, there are other rotating collections at the Library of Congress. When we were there, they had a ‘Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote and Mapping a Growing Nation, featuring how our nation was shaped. To me, it was almost like being in a wing of the Smithsonian or the National Archives.
They also had on display a collection of artifacts from Baseball throughout history. My favorite was the original uniforms from the Rockford Peaches All American Girls Professional Baseball team.
Make sure to stop into at least one of the Smithsonian’s while in Washington DC. There are a ton and they are all free! Click here to find out more.
Can you walk into the Library Rooms?
Visiting the Library of Congress, the books stay on the premises. If you need to do research, you have to obtain a reader card. Then you’ll get to enter the reading rooms.
A librarian will get the materials off the shelf for you. Depending on how rare the book is, you may or may not be able to touch it. The library reading room is viewable from the Third Floor, through the glass. They ask that you keep your voices down for those studying.
Tips for Visiting the Library of Congress
Get to the library early
Visiting the Library of Congress was more popular than I imagined it would be. I ended up going on a whim. The Library is located behind the State Capitol.
It doesn’t come near the crowds of the Smithsonian’s but still, it was an effort just to get through the doors, complete with their own security protocols.
Get there early in the day. They are open 8:30-4:30 making it one of the first places to open in the Mall. Like most libraries, they are closed on Sundays.
Security is right at the front door, with no inside waiting. If a line starts to form, you’ll be waiting outside the doors exposed to the elements. Be prepared.
Free Library of Congress Tour
The Library of Congress offers free tours every hour starting at 10:30. Each tour lasts 1hr long. They recommend you get there about 20 minutes prior to the tour start because the group tours fill up fast.
If you want to skip the line, you can schedule a private tour that takes you through the Library of Congress, the Capital, and the Supreme Court. I recommend getting tickets before you leave because they will sell out. Get your tickets by clicking here.
How to get to the Library of Congress?
The Library of Congress stretches out to multiple buildings. But the most prominent one pictured here is directly behind the US Captial, called the Jefferson Building.
It’s accessible via Uber, Scooter, or Bike. We ended up using a capital share bike rental and dropping the bikes off a couple of blocks past the library.
As a quick word of caution, you are on busier streets and the sidewalks were packed. It was also a slow incline the whole way there.
You’ll know why it’s called capitol hill after making the climb. If you want to avoid walking in sweaty, consider Ubering there and biking back to the mall.
There are tons of ways to get around Washington DC on a budget. Check out some more great options to take advantage of the Best way to get around Washington DC with Public Transportation
Take your time when visiting the Library of Congress. I don’t think you will ever be in a building that is this beautiful again. But if you do need to rush, you could probably see all the most important pieces in about an hour.
To learn more about the Library Of Congress, I recommend reading America’s Greatest Library by John Y Cole. He does an excellent job of displaying the history and magnitude of this beautiful library.
When Britain Burned the White House by Peter Snow goes into more detail about when the British came to burn Washington.
Other Things to Do Around the Library of Congress
Other Attractions to Visit
If you enjoyed visiting the Library of Congress, you should also take the tunnels over the State Capitol. They offer free tours with no reservations required.
You can also get the chance to see Congress in action! I also recommend visiting the National Archives.
These have some of the most amazing pieces of our history on display. I am still shocked to this day that they are still around after the war of 1812. I hope you have a great time on your visit to the Library of Congress.