From the outside, this building looks all business—stately and severe and law-abiding. Don’t get me wrong, the Library of Congress is all about the business of books. (And everyone’s first question always is: Where are all the books anyway? Read on for the answer.)
But go inside and you are swept up into the Beaux-Arts extravaganza of an Italian palazzo, with so many lavishly painted ceilings and marble statues that you think you may have gotten ambushed somewhere between the White House and the Tuscan countryside.
Established in 1800 by an act of Congress to house, in the words of President John Adams—“such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress”—it was originally kept in the Capitol building itself. The beautiful new Thomas Jefferson Building came along and the end of the 19th century (it officially opened its doors in 1897), to accommodate a library that was growing beyond its physical means.
Here are a few fun facts about this grandiose temple of learning:
TJ’s Library: When the British burned the U.S. Capitol in 1814—along with any books in the on-site Library of Congress they didn’t steal—Thomas Jefferson offered up 6,487 titles (more than twice the holdings that had been lost in the fire) he had amassed on such topics as politics, science, history, and wine as a replacement.
The collection, which Congress paid Jefferson $23,950 to obtain, even included a 1764 edition of the Quran. Alas, a second blaze, on Christmas Eve 1851, destroyed nearly nearly all of those books. (The Quran survived.)
Carded: Want a closer look at the library’s offerings? Use your driver’s license or passport to obtain your own library card. Even if you don’t use it, it makes for a great souvenir.
Oddities: The Library’s holdings include the contents of Abraham Lincoln’s pockets when he died (including a $5 Confederate bill); a Depression-era Mother Goose collection with colorful pop-up pictures (how much did that cost to make?); and the original yellow ribbon tied “’round the ole oak tree” in 1979 during the Iran hostage crisis. Its smallest book, Old King Cole, is about the size of a period; you need a needle to turn the pages.
Abe’s Pensive Side: Look closely at the mural adorning the dome of the Main Reading Room, in which 12 winged figures represent humankind’s greatest intellectual achievements—Religion (Judea), Philosophy (Greece), and the like. America is there, too. And the figure symbolizing the nation’s contributions to science—an engineer pondering a machine—is based on a portrait of none other than Lincoln himself, sans his famous beard.
By the Numbers: The world’s largest library, the Library of Congress houses 160 million items total, including more than 37 million books and other printed materials, 14 million photographs, 5.5 million maps, and 3.5 million recordings. Every single day another 12,000 items are added to the collection.
Hidden Books: The books are kept on some 838 miles of shelves in three buildings on Capitol Hill, which are conveniently connected by underground passageways, and off-site storage facilities in rural Virginia. All stacks are closed to the public.
Librarian of Congress: There have been 14 different Librarians of Congress (that’s the official title). James Hadley Billington held the post from 1987 until his retirement in 2015. David S. Mao was installed as acting Librarian in October 2015.
How Tweet It Is: The Library of Congress has been collecting every single public tweet since Twitter’s founding in 2006 (that’s something like half a trillion tweets) and archiving them digitally. Upwards of 50 million tweets are processed each and every day—a number that grows by the year.
Barbara A. Noe is a freelance writer and the former senior editor at National Geographic Travel Books.