Making the Most of Your Library of Congress Experience

April 24, 1800, is the birthday of the Library of Congress, the day on which President John Adams managed to approve the funds for Congress’ purchase of some cool books to help them out with whatever they needed. And so, the seed was planted which would soon grow into one of the most beautiful reading locations in the United States. Roughly 215 years later, while on a trip to D.C. to help research and film for a documentary on D.C. veterans’ memorials, I stumbled into this revered Library, ready to get the full LOC experience.

A fellow Rioter has already provided this article which gives you the skinny on how to get into the beloved Reading Room, only otherwise available to view through a pane of glass –  from high above – for a few moments  – on a guided tour of the building. But once you have your Reader Identification card and have dropped off all of your unsuitable personal belongings in one of the Cloak Rooms, what then? How do you get Maximum Enjoyment out of your foray into the most cherished of reading spaces? Fear not. I’ve made all of your possible mistakes for you already. Feel free to make your own, of course – learning by failure sometimes teaches the best of lessons. But know that this advice is well-meaning.

Photograph by Carol Highsmith, courtesy of the LOC Prints and Photographs Division.

Photograph by Carol Highsmith, courtesy of the LOC Prints and Photographs Division.

Tip #1: Don’t be afraid to ask for directions. Between where you go to request a Reader Identification card and the actual Reading Room is a labyrinth of offices and other, secondary reading rooms, all with other specific purposes. But you, dear friend, are looking for the Main Reading Room, in the Jefferson Building. Plenty of information desks along the way are there for you to ask. Do not just wander around on your own. You will find yourself in a deserted gilded hallway, perhaps, or almost trip into what might look like an important business meeting of some probably super important government people. You will get strange looks from people who clearly know you have no idea where you are, despite the false mask of confidence you desperately try to project. Just ask directions before it’s too late.

Tip #2: Have an idea of what you might want to request when you visit. I mean, you can take your own book. But also, if you want to get the whole experience, it’s nice to have a book from the actual Library in your hands. Especially if you wander in without a book already and find yourself sitting at one of the majestic Reading Room desks with nothing in particular to do except stare at the wood and try to look like you’re thinking really, really hard – because you know that otherwise, tourists busily snapping photos from the glass platform above will start wondering what your deal is. To find a book ahead of time, you can use the online catalogue – or again, just ask one of the lovely reference librarians.

Tip #3: If you DO request materials, remember to stay at your desk until you get them. Twenty minutes or so after I submitted my book request, I began to panic. Chill out, my brain told me, embarrassed. Hold onto some of that patented Hufflepuff patience of yours. But alas, I was too worried I’d missed my book somehow. I made the mistake of going up to the circular desk in the middle to ask if my book had come up yet, and they very kindly let me know that someone would be bringing it to me, via the desk I’d written down on the request form. I slunk back to my (beautiful) desk in dejection to wait for another twenty minutes (a related tip: make sure you dedicate enough time to your visit, especially if you request materials). You DO have the option to put just your name on the form and pick it up at the desk, but know that there’s really no way of notifying you it’s there unless you hover and continue to come back and ask for it.

Photograph by Carol Highsmith, courtesy of the LOC Prints and Photographs Division.

Photograph by Carol Highsmith, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Tip #4: Don’t be afraid to wander around. You won’t get in trouble. Because of the high security, both at the security desk and how many librarians and professionals are there working, I felt like I was restricted to stay at my own desk. The image of the desks, orderly and dignified, is one of the most iconic from the Room, so it wasn’t a problem for me. However, as I was leaving, I bravely ventured into one of the many round alcoves of bookshelves that circle the room. No one stopped me. I didn’t have time to peruse, as I didn’t leave enough time for that, but briefly adventuring in those alcoves was one of my favorite experiences, and I highly recommend exploring to your heart’s content and ignoring how many eyes you’ll think are judging you as you do it.

Tip #5: Don’t take photos. I know it’s already a rule of the Room, but seriously, don’t do it. I understand the temptation. I know how desperately you will want to capture that moment in digital form. You will want to Tweet out that photo, find the perfect filter on Instagram, etc. But do not do it. Why? Well, I personally don’t know the consequences via the Library or the security folks. But I do know the personal consequence – intense guilt, probably forever. I am haunted by that horrible, blurry photograph that I tried to be so sneaky about. Full disclosure – I haven’t deleted it. It’s still on my phone. (After all this time? Always.) But I am too ashamed to post it anywhere. I destroyed the sanctity of the location. Why did I think I was a special snowflake who could get away with breaking the rules? Don’t be plagued with regret: don’t take photographs, even if you think you can get away with it.

Make the most out of your Reading Room experience, and good luck. If you’re a frequent Reading Room visitor, let me know in the comments – have you experienced any of these horrifyingly embarrassing issues? Or do you have even better tips? 

For more information about the Main Reading Room, check out the official page from the Library of Congress

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