Friday, February 5, 2010

Seven Things I Love About the Library of Congress

Last week I took a train ride from New Jersey to Washington, D.C., for a quick trip to the Library of Congress. I do it every year or so, both to collect research material for whatever project I’m working on and to gain inspiration from the librarians, archivists, and other people who inhabit this amazing institution. Since visiting this mecca of inquiry is such a valued part of my work process, I thought I’d highlight some of my favorite things about the library.

1. The librarians and archivists are extraordinarily helpful. I spend a lot of my time at the library's Prints and Photographs Division, and everyone who works there seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of their holdings. What’s more, the staff treats every question with respect and interest, while having no end of patience with those of us who have to reacquaint ourselves with mastering the technology and the procedures for requesting material.

2. The breadth of the collections is unsurpassed. Want to watch Thomas Edison’s film of Annie Oakley shooting at targets? See Sitting Bull pose for a picture in swimming goggles? Read the “latest” news from a particular city in 1888? You can do all that and more in the library’s various reading rooms. All you need is a User Card, issued free at the library and good for two years.

3. It’s literally right next door to the Supreme Court and across the street from the Capitol. I don’t consider myself overly patriotic, but I can’t help but get a thrill when I’m a stone’s throw from the iconic buildings of our nation’s capital. Maybe it’s because as a kid, I took the requisite trip to Washington, D.C., with my parents. Maybe it's because I was a history major in college. Whatever the reason, the walk from Union Station to the Library of Congress takes me right past the centers of two of our three branches of government, and I find that awe-inspiring.

4. They have a great cafeteria. I’m a sucker for good, reasonably priced food, and the Library of Congress has a large cafeteria with a great view and a huge salad bar. Having spent many a day sequestered in libraries with no place to eat, I always appreciate the chance to take a quick break and get more sustenance than that provided by an energy bar.

5. There’s no substitute for being there. These days, people can access many of the Library of Congress’s catalogs and collections online. But visiting the hallowed halls can lead to all types of discoveries. Last week, while biding my time as someone went to retrieve a book I requested, I opened my laptop found that within the confines of the library, I could access the amazing 19th-Century U.S. Newspapers database. I spent the next two hours finding scores of useful articles from obscure newspapers that I never would have found otherwise.

6. They have great free stuff. At the desk in the Prints and Photographs Division, there are often free-for-the-taking bookmarks, postcards, and catalogs featuring items from the collection. The other day I came away with Herblock’s History, the catalog for a 2000-2001 exhibit on political cartoonist Herb Block, as well as an array of bookmarks with reprints of historical photographs (such as the one at right showing a woman assembling a B-25 bomber in 1942).

7. It’s our library! When I visit the Library of Congress, I see my taxes at work. Almost everything at the place reminds me that this is our library. The free computer printouts, the helpful attitude of the staff, the accessible cafeteria all seem designed to reinforce the fact that our tax dollars keep the library afloat. As a writer, I tend to love libraries and archives, no matter where they are, but the Library of Congress in particular feels like home.

You can access the Library of Congress online here. For the Prints and Photographs Division, click here.


Gretchen Woelfle said...

Sue: Thanks for the vicarious tour! Makes me want to hop on a plane and visit in person. And yes, it's nice to see our taxes at work on a project I can wholeheartedly support.

Dorothy Patent said...

Me too, Gretchen!! I have used the Library online and found it great for finding photos for my 2011 book, The Horse and the Plains Indians, but now I want to be there in person and drink in that wonderful indefinable scent of a great library.

Lori said...

While I have been to DC many, many times, I have never been to the LoC. Now I find myself heading there in May for several reasons...and this NEW reason is added to the list. DS#1 is researching some things re: the Civil War...and we will be visiting battlegrounds. Now I think the LoC is on the list of "must-go's."
Thanks for sharing.