Behind the Scenes tour of the Library of Congress

I took Friday off work and headed down to DC with some fellow librarian friends to take a behind the scenes tour of the Library of Congress. My friend Sean suggested it and did all the work of setting it up. I’m glad he did because it was a lot of fun.

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The Library of Congress is composed of three buildings named after Jefferson, Adams, and Madison. Within these buildings there are I believe 22 reading rooms organized around different subject areas. The Jefferson building contains the great hall which is the beautifully ornate part of the library and contains the main reading room. There are also some exhibits there. It is open for tours to the general public. If you’re ever in DC I highly recommend taking a tour because it is an incredibly beautiful building. It’s amazing the time, materials, and detail that went into the design. A building like this would never be built today, which I get, but which is also a shame.

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The general public is also welcome to go into any of the reading rooms to do research. You just have to get a researcher card, which is available to anyone over the age of 16 with a photo ID. We only got to see a couple of the reading rooms on our tour, but I would love to go back and check out some of the other ones. Though of course since the Library of Congress has closed stacks what I would really love to do is just be able to wander around in their collections.

We did get to do a little of that on our tour. After our general tour of the Great Hall we met with librarians from 3 of the different reading rooms. First we met with a librarian who works in the main reading room. She was super excited to meet with us. She had even Googled us before our meeting and thought it was great that we were a bunch of young librarians who work at different institutions but who all know each other and took time off to come down for a tour. She was fantastic. She gave us a great behind the scenes look at what she does with her job and took us to areas that we never would have been able to see otherwise.

Interestingly the library seems to be a both a little bit more technologically advanced and a little bit less technologically advanced in fulfilling requests than it used to be. They have replaced the old pneumatic tube system that was used to send request slips with an online system. However the old conveyer belt system that moved books back and forth is broken and is too old to get parts for in an economical fashion and thus can’t be repaired. Now they are back to moving books back and forth between buildings manually on book trucks. We got to see the old equipment, which is still there even though it is not functional any more. We also got to see some of the closed stacks. They are definitely out of room, which is not surprising given that the Library of Congress receives on average 12,000 items per day thanks to the copyright deposit system. Too bad Congress won’t vote to give their own library enough money to properly deal with the issue.

We also got to see a small part of their old card catalog, which they kept for historical reasons even after the catalog was moved online.

Card catalog
Card catalog

The best part of the tour was when we got to use the staircase from the staff area underneath the reference desk in the main reading room to walk up into the reading room right under the dome. I might be acting slightly overdramatic but it was a transcendent moment.

We popped up into the main reading from below that desk you see in the center of this picture.
We popped up into the main reading from below that desk you see in the center of this picture.

Next we met with a business librarian and a science librarian from the business and science reading room. The science librarian has been at the Library of Congress for 48 years. She was awesome. She even brought us in cake and cookies to eat while we met with her. She had a million stories. She basically spent our whole time together going from one story into another.

Our final stop was in the periodicals reading room. They have an amazing collection of newspapers from around the world. I for some reason didn’t take any pictures of the shelves of newspapers we saw, but I did take one of some of the rows and rows of old newspapers they have on microfilm. The librarian we were meeting with there was afraid she wasn’t showing us anything very exciting because she didn’t find out we were coming until the last minute, but we are all completely nerdy librarians and thus were overly excited just to look at an extensive number of shelves full of newspapers and microfilm.

Rows and rows of microfilm
Rows and rows of microfilm

It was a great afternoon, and I look forward to the next time I get to go the Library of Congress.

For more pictures including ones with people in them check out my friend Catherine’s blog.

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