"I cannot live without books."
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.