A Visit to The Library of Congress

by Gray Cargill on December 3, 2014

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When does a visit to the library not have anything to do with checking out books? When it’s the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. In fact, I may have to give back my diplomas as an English Lit major, because I wasn’t at all interested in the book collections at the Library of Congress–I was there purely for the architecture. I’d heard rumors it was the most beautiful building in Washington, DC. After visiting, I’d have to agree–and go one further: It might just be the most beautiful building in the country.

If I didn’t know better, I might have mistaken this Library for a palace or cathedral in Europe. Everywhere I looked, I saw more details that were just stunning. This building has among the best architecture I’ve ever seen during my travels. My photos don’t do it justice. But I will share them with you anyway.

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress: Bringing the pretty since 1897.

Who do we have to thank for this glorious architecture? Several men: General Thomas Casey, who oversaw construction and architects John Smithmeyer, Paul Pelz and Edward Pearce Casey, the general’s son, among them. But none of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for two Senators who pushed for Congressional authorization: Daniel Voorhees of Indiana, who was then Chair of the Joint Committee, and Vermont’s very own Justin Morrill, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Buildings and Grounds.

So, shoutout to a Vermonter for helping to make this awesome building a reality!

Library of Congress

View from the first floor

Getting back to the building’s purpose as a library. . .The library’s original collection was small and burned during the Revolutionary War. It was replaced by Thomas Jefferson’s own personal book collection–over 6,487 books. (I have to hand it to Mr. Jefferson. I’ve bought a lot of books in my day, but I can’t even wrap my brain around owning that many.) Today, the collection has over 158 million items. As the Library’s collection grew, it required a new building, so what we now call the Jefferson building was constructed and opened in 1897.

Library of Congress

One of many paintings on the walls.

The Library offers free one-hour tours of the Jefferson Building (the one you see here in my photos; there are also two other buildings that are part of the Library of Congress). I didn’t take that tour, but I may on a future trip. As you can see, photography is allowed in the Jefferson building, except in three areas (the room with the Bibles, the exhibitions area, and the Main Reading Room).

Library of Congress

Ceiling sculpture

Speaking of Bibles, one of the things you can see here is the Gutenberg Bible, which you may remember from school as being the first book printed (in the West, anyway) using movable type. (It was printed by Johannes Gutenberg–hence the name–in 1450.) It looks exactly as you might expect–a large, old book under glass. I wasn’t all that wowed by it, to be honest. I was too mesmerized by the beauty of the building itself.

Library of Congress


Here’s a tip for your visit, passed along to me by my friend Tracy Antonioli, The Suitcase Scholar: If you’re visiting the Capitol and the Library of Congress on the same day (and why wouldn’t you? They’re located right across the street from each other), you can avoid going through security twice by using the underground tunnel between the two buildings. Lines to get in to either building weren’t long the day I was there, but if you’re visiting during DC’s busy season of summer, I suppose this could save some significant time.

Library of Congress

The tunnel between the Capitol and the Library of Congress.

Here are a few more photos for your visual pleasure:

Library of Congress

A stained glass panel from the ceiling


Library of Congress

Mosaic on the floor

Library of Congress

There’s an amazing amount of marble used in this building, carved to intricate detail.

Library of Congress

Even the elevator here is beautiful.

Library of Congress

Look at this detail inside the elevator–wow!

Library of Congress

The exterior of the building isn’t shabby, either, but my heart belongs to the inside.

Ich bin FenriS March 11, 2016 at 2:57 am

Beautiful place. thank you for sharing

Gray Cargill March 22, 2016 at 6:47 pm

Thanks for reading.

Tracy Antonioli December 23, 2014 at 5:25 pm

Beautiful photos! I also think it is the most beautiful building in the US. And I’ve done a lot of searching out of beautiful buildings.

Also: thanks for sharing my tip about the tunnel! And glad to hear you did not encounter lines or crowds. DC can get crazy busy.

Gray Cargill December 23, 2014 at 5:37 pm

Thank you, Tracy, and thanks for the great tunnel tip! There were pluses and minuses to traveling in October, that’s for sure. The minus was that hotel prices were crazy expensive (since Congress was in session), but the plus was that there were no serious lines or crowds in most places.

Jeff December 5, 2014 at 4:19 pm

Amazing building. How did I miss this when I visited a couple of years ago? We went to a bunch of the museums but somehow this place got skipped.

Gray Cargill December 7, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Well, now you have a reason to return, Jeff. That’s what I always tell myself!

JoAnna December 4, 2014 at 12:26 pm

My all-time favorite place in Washington DC! I never visit the city without visiting the Library of Congress. It’s so incredible!

Gray Cargill December 4, 2014 at 7:12 pm

I’m not sure I’d feel the need to visit on every trip, JoAnna, but it is definitely a feast for the eyes.

De'Jav December 4, 2014 at 6:43 am

Definitely agree looks more like a palace. Never been next time I’m in DC will have to check it out.

Gray Cargill December 4, 2014 at 7:11 pm

You won’t regret it, De’Jav.

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