Cool Bookish Places

How to Read in the Library of Congress: A Step-By-Step Guide

We’ve already established why a book nerd would want to take advantage of the Library of Congress. Today, I’m going to tell you how.

Like most Federal buildings, the LoC has public areas that you can wander around or tour. The public areas are very grand and sometimes have exhibits, but they’re not the actual library-ish part. For that, you want the Reading Rooms.

Step 1: Obtain a Reader Identification Card.

In order to enter the Reading Rooms, you first have to be approved for a Reader Identification Card. This is ostensibly for people who are visiting the LoC to use its materials for research purposes, but I think that anyone who wanted a quiet, studious place in which to be quiet and studious would be welcome.

All you need is a Government-issued photo ID. You’ll have to fill out some forms with basic personal information, sit for a photo, and agree to some guidelines. The whole process will take less than 20 minutes if there’s no line. (I went on a weekday and found a small line.) You won’t be asked to justify your application or explain what you want to research. The hardest part is finding the correct room in the LoC’s Madison Building, especially if you end up in the crazy subterranean tunnels. I’m pretty sure I had to ask for directions three times, but I made it there eventually.

Library of Congress ID reader registration researcher card

Once you have a Reader Card, you’re also eligible to request materials! The LoC offers orientation classes for new Researchers on the best way to take advantage of what the library has to offer. You won’t be allowed to take any materials away with you, but you can read them to your heart’s content while you’re there.

Step 2: The Cloakroom.

The Library of Congress doesn’t permit you to enter the Reading Rooms if you’re carrying anything that could be used to steal or damage the collection. This includes, but is not limited to, food, water, umbrellas, coats or jackets, scissors, newspapers, and containers or bags/purses larger than 9.5″x 6.25″.

They’re very careful about that final rule: I’ve been permitted to bring in a little wristlet (with my phone, my ID, some cash, and a chapstick) but never an actual purse, even a small one. This is the function of the Cloakroom: to store all of the things you’ll have with you that you can’t bring into the Reading Room.

The rules are strict, but the LoC isn’t heartless. They know you might have things to carry once they take away all of your bags. That’s why they offer these at the Cloakroom:

IMG_2893 edit

Be sure to have a little pouch on hand if you plan on bringing anything with you that you don’t want the world to see.

Step 3: Enjoy!

Once you’ve divested yourself of contraband, head to the Reading Room of your choice. You’ll be asked to present your Reader card and sign in, and then all you have to do is decide where to sit.

Desks in the main reading room of the Library of Congress

The Main Reading room has desks, chairs, individual lamps, outlets, free wireless internet, and a rug with a pattern of books on it. It’s a little chilly, and very quiet.

I’ve never been in another space that felt so intellectually industrious. I think that’s the upside of a workspace that requires so much preparation; by the time I actually sat down, I was so mentally ready to be productive that I wasn’t even tempted to procrastinate. I’ve been a few times already and I know I’ll go back again. Maybe I’ll see you there?

All images are my own except the lovely photo of desks.

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