I have a thing for libraries. Wherever I travel, whether it’s close to home or a flight away, I love to visit the local library because it tells me about the people who live there. Plus, the hush of voices, the smell of paperbacks, the rows of shelves, all make me feel welcome and right at home, as distinct and unique as it may be.
For many years when my boys were school age, the Los Angeles Central Library was our Saturday venture. We knew every mural on the walls, every corner of the children’s section. Every fountain and garden design outside.
Usually when I go home to Colorado, I try to spend time in the Denver Central Library next to the Civic Center. The inner central rotunda is impressive to walk through, the hallways open and spacious.
Just recently my husband and I got to know Solana Beach’s library, a small branch library, in a small beach town on the Coast Highway in California between Los Angeles and San Diego. It was a cool escape for our weary feet on a hot day.
If you haven’t had a recent journey to a library, make it your next weekend excursion. Just like the books within them, libraries are a microcosm of the world.
I have to admit that my most memorable library adventure was this past July. I had a day to myself in D.C. at the end of a conference for work and the one place I knew I had to visit was The Library of Congress. Months earlier I had seen a film at the Annenberg Space for Photography exhibition about “America’s Library.” Which also happens to be the world’s biggest library. That film set me on a quest to see it for myself when I knew I’d be so close.
As you can imagine, the Library of Congress is composed of more than one building. “There’s the James Madison, and there’s the John Adams,” my Lyft driver pointed out, “and here’s the Thomas Jefferson.” Deposited at the corner of Independence Avenue and First Street on Capitol Hill, I climbed the stairs to a grand entrance with heavy bronze doors. On one side, a woman holds a mirror and a serpent. Her name is Truth. The other door depicts a woman named Research, holding a flaming torch. And that’s just the beginning.
The Library of Congress is a treasure trove of beautiful stylized murals on the walls high above, artifacts under glass like the Hamilton letters that inspired the musical, the first maps of the Americas, the oldest comic book dating back to 1936, a campaign banner for Abraham Lincoln in the presidential race of 1860, and gorgeous marble staircases and walkways. I joined a group tour with a guide who took us to a balcony that overlooks the famed Reading Room. We all gazed down, up and around the impressive rotunda in awe. At the very top of the dome is a mural of a young woman as she lifts a veil, representing the dawn of human understanding. There’s an enormous clock presided over by Father Time, stained glass windows, and the statues of knowledge standing sentinel over the nearby balconies.
I discovered anyone is allowed into the Reading Room with a Reader Registration Card. So I secured my things in a locker, wound around a long quiet corridor past offices marked “Staff Only” in bold, took an elevator down to the basement, walked through a security scanner, and finally got the required picture ID card. A short, low-ceiling entry room opened up into the circular chamber I had just an hour ago looked down upon from the balcony. For a reader and writer, it felt like sacred space. I greeted the librarians in the middle, walked through stacks of books, and sat at one of the many catalogue computers. I felt the whole of history and the sheer immensity of the collection inspire me that day.
The most thrilling of all was searching through World Cat, a catalog that itemizes the collections of 72,000 libraries in 170 countries that participate in the Online Computer Library Center global cooperative. I found The Three Graces listed there, thanks to Steve, my librarian friend!
My Library of Congress experience made me feel a part, a very small fraction true, but a piece nonetheless, of a whole. Of a rather immeasurable gem that is ours as a nation, that we should never take for granted. For as it states on the library doors, there is truth in research. If you do research, you will find the truth you are looking for. Every book, music score, art collection, film and photograph is a gift. A legacy from those who have come before us, from those still among us, from me, from you. Yes, if you have ever tweeted, you too, are a part of the library’s collection!
If I’ve piqued your interest at all, check out the library here: https://www.loc.gov/about/fascinating-facts/
Don’t forget next time you are in D.C. – get awe-inspired and visit my favorite library of all time!