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Dartmouth, Nova Scotia
October 21, 2006
From journal Washington - Sights and Tastes
July 29, 2002
The Library of Congress is a juggernaut. Over 31,000 items arrive at the Library each day; some 7,000 are incorporated into the permanent collection. The world's largest library contains more than 100 million items in 450 languages. This Brobdingnagian institution is housed in three enormous buildings, with a staff of about 5,000. It's almost incomprehensible.
Yet pause for a minute to return to 1800, when the seat of government was transferred from Philadelphia to the new capital, Washington, and the Library was first established. The library, originally for the sole use of Congress, was a no-frills affair. The first books, 740 of them, arrived from London in 1801 and were housed in the Capitol.
In 1814, the British invaded Washington, burning the Capitol building and the small library in the process. Retired President Thomas Jefferson, an avid book collector with the finest library in the country, stepped forward and offered his collection to Congress. It is hard to imagine, but Congress actually hestitated, objecting that Jefferson's library contained controversial material, such as "immoral" French writers and philosophers. After four months of angry Congressional debate, the final vote on the matter was 81 in favor and 71 opposed. Interestingly, the better-educated members of Congress were more likely to vote against accepting Jefferson's offer, which perhaps in itself was a validation of Jefferson's well-known advocacy of "the common man."
By accepting Jefferson's 6,487 books, the size of the Library was more than doubled. More importantly, however, it was set upon a new course. In accepting Jefferson's books, Congress tacitly subscribed to his all-embracing philosophy, which guides the Library to this day.
A visitor to the Library of Congress usually enters the grand Thomas Jefferson Building completed in 1897. The magnificent interior, with its soaring vaulted ceilings, marble columns, mosaic floors, and ornate murals, was a decidedly American undertaking - something of a political statement in the European-besotted Gilded Age. While the decorative themes may seem decidedly lopsided to the modern visitor - scarcely acknowledging non-Western cultures - they are remarkably beautiful.
On my first visit to the Library (I must sadly advise that there is little hope of taking it all in on a single visit), I joined a guided tour shuffling herd-like through the halls for the simple reason that only tour groups are taken in to view the wondrous main reading room. On a second, more leisurely visit, I sat resting on a bench outside the "American Treasures" exhibit, contemplating the multitude of literary and philosophical quotations adorning the walls.
I asked the security guard standing nearby, "Do all these quotations ever make you curious about the people who wrote them? Does sitting here inspire you to read?"
The guard smiled ruefully. "No, can't say that it does. But I like looking at all the quotes. There are some real good ones."
There sure are.
From journal Paper Chase
June 14, 2002
The normally wordy Roosevelt made but a single entry in his pocket diary that day: a large black X with the words, "The light has gone out of my life" beneath it. Afterwards, he rarely mentioned his wife. It was as if he were putting an event too painful to contemplate behind him.
For insight into the inner Roosevelt, historians rely on his private papers, over 250,000 of which are housed at the Library of Congress. On a recent visit, the pocket diary containing the above entry was on display in the "American Treasures" exhibit on the second floor, in a glass case also containing diaries of Walt Whitman, Clara Barton, and George Patton. Elsewhere in the exhibit are documents from the Progressive Era: manuscripts by Ida R. Tarbell and other "muck-rakers", a charming photo of the Roosevelt children lining up for "roll call" at the White House, and newsreel footage of the Spanish-American war, the war that made T.R. an American icon.
T.R.’s personal hero was Abraham Lincoln, and numerous Lincoln artifacts are in evidence, including the contents of his pockets on the night he was assassinated. To walk through the exhibit is to walk through American history. Here is George Washington’s school copybook; there the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. Items are selected and rotated from the library’s 121,000,000-object collection.
"American Treasures" is divided into three parts: Memory, Reason, and Imagination, the organizing themes of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library. In truth I can scarcely do justice to this single exhibit at the Library of Congress, whose architectural and cultural glories are legion. By taking a narrower approach, tracking T.R., I soon realized that had I picked virtually any figure of importance in American history I would have been richly rewarded.
An interesting mental game to pursue at the exhibit was to find the T.R. connections. In the "Imagination" section a first edition of Owen Whister’s The Virginian is displayed. Roosevelt was a friend of Whister’s, and like him was an Eastern "dude" who went west, became a rancher, then came back East to write about – and romanticize – the life of the cowboy. Next to Whister’s book is a letter from Frederick Remington, whose paintings and sculptures did so much to establish the Wild West in the popular imagination. Remington, also a T.R. confederate, illustrated many of his books.
Noted for his prodigious reading habits, Roosevelt liberally exercised his presidential borrowing privileges at the Library of Congress. While he was a man of action, he was also one of our most intellectually accomplished presidents. "He was our kind," said Robert Frost. "He quoted poetry to me. He knew poetry."
From journal Big Game Hunting in Washington, D.C.
July 1, 2005
Now, the collection ranges from two copies of every book published in the USA to countless other one dimensional objects (that is the critera) like Bob Hopes' joke script. You will get to see two of the world's rarest books, a perfect Guggenheim Bible (one of three in the world), plus a giant Rheims hand-lettered Bible. They are housed in temperature-controlled, upright-piano-looking cases. Your guide will point out that the library's roof is capped with what was then rarer and far more costly than gold, an aluminum ball. The breathtakingly beautiful main reading room is familiar from countless films. For a neat souvenir, you can get a card that entitles you to read material but not check it out. Tours are on a first-come, first served basis and last about an hour. Wait times for a tour are about half an hour. You may also make arrangements through your Congressman for a tour; this may help cut down on your hassle wait time. Don't forget to take a look at the slightly riske Jupiter fountain outside. Free, of course--you've already paid through your taxes! Young children may be bored with the explanations of the symbols used in the decorations.
From journal An Eight-Day Vacation in Washington, D.C.
Little Rock,, Arkansas
July 23, 2001
From journal Let's Lobby Washington