I had the good fortune of going to the Library of Congress last week (during yet another freak snowstorm) with a wonderful group of women. While I have been to all three of the buildings before, I was reminded of how lucky I am to live in the nation’s Capital. I highly encourage you to visit any of the buildings the next time you are in Washington D.C. This particular time, we happened to visit the Jefferson building. It is simply magnificent. Please visit, you won’t be disappointed. Make sure to take a guided tour as the docents give you all sorts of little tidbits of information you would not otherwise be privy to. I would ask for Irvin. A couple of years ago, my husband and I attended an industry dinner (National Restaurant Association) in the Jefferson building. Cocktails were on the main level and dinner was set up on the second floor all the way around the open gallery. It was an evening I will never forget.
The three buildings that house the world’s largest collection of manuscripts, are the Thomas Jefferson Building, opened in 1897; the John Adams Building, which opened in 1938 as an annex to the main building and the James Madison Memorial Building, which opened in 1981. The Madison building serves as the Library’s headquarters and houses the Law Library of Congress.
The Library owes much to Jefferson. When the original library (established in 1800) was burned during the War of 1812, Jefferson offered his private book collection from Monticello, containing more than twice the books that the Library had held and including books in foreign languages and tomes on subjects such as science, philosophy and literature. Jefferson was not only a collector, he was also a reader. These books created quite the stir in Congress as there were to be books “that no one could read” as they were in “foreign languages”. Georgetown bookseller Joseph Milligan was engaged to count the number of books being offered by size. Congress agreed to pay $4.00 for large books, $2.00 for medium books and $1.00 for small books. Mr. Milligan determined that there were 6,487 volumes. The terms of sale were agreed upon at $23,950.00. When Jefferson did his own physical count of his books, he came up with 6,707 or 220 more books than had been reported. He did not ask for the extra $1,172.50 owed him, he simply included the extra books. He used the proceeds from the sale to settle some of his many debts. He paid $10,500 to William Short and $4,870 to John Barnes. As we all know, Jefferson was deeply in debt most of his adult life.
In a gallery room tucked away on the second floor, are bookcases arranged in a circular formation. On the shelves are more than 6,000 volumes, including 2,000 originals from Jefferson’s library. Sadly, a fire on Christmas Eve 1851, destroyed many of Jefferson’s original books. Congress continues to this day to purchase period copies of books lost in the fire. It is an ongoing project. There is a story that there was a party on Christmas Eve at the Library and that a candle from the Christmas tree had started the fire. Recently, this has been proven to be false by the discovery of a maintenance man’s record book. He clearly states that the fire was started by chimney flue fire, not a candle from a Christmas tree.
Close up of books from Jefferson’s personal library.
The main reading room.
The Capital from the window of the second floor during the freak, spring snowstorm.
These figures of little boys on the staircase are known as “puttis” in Italian Renaissance art and represent the various occupations and pursuits of contemporary American life when the Jefferson Building was completed in 1897. You can see a musician, a physician, an astronomer and an electrician.
Wish you could have joined me!