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Highlights of the Library of Congress: Thomas Jefferson, Bob Hope and the Gutenberg Bible!

Updated on October 13, 2014

A Washington D.C. Family Day Trip to America's National Library!

The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, with millions of books, photographs, maps and other items in its collection. The Thomas Jefferson Building (shown here) is the main building of the library and opened in 1897.

The official mission of the library is to help the Congress with research, and as such general members of the public can't take any of the materials out. But visitors can tour parts of the building, which the library has turned over to selected items from its collection.

Here are some highlights from a recent visit.

Library of Congress Hall
Library of Congress Hall

A Beautiful Building Inside and Out!

Beaux-Arts Style, with Plenty of Pizzazz!

The Thomas Jefferson Building, across the street from the U.S. Capital, is just a gorgeous place. Inside the entrance is the great hall (see photo), with cherubs highlighting the railings and plenty of white Italian marble and brown Tennessee marble.

There's busts of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as well as elaborate paintings along the top of the walls. Just walking through makes you feel like you are in a museum, not a library!

This photo was taken from the second floor, shooting across the great hall.

Gutenberg Bible Library of Congress
Gutenberg Bible Library of Congress

Gutenberg Bible and the Giant Bible of Mainz

Books from the 15th Century!

At the rear of the great hall are two of the most prized possessions of the Library of Congress: the Giant Bible of Mainz and a complete version of the Gutenberg Bible, two beautiful books from the 1450s.

The Giant Bible of Mainz, with pages 22.5 inches by 16 inches, was produced in 1452-53, and while no one knows exactly where it was completed it is presumed to have been in or near the town of Mainz, The first few pages have beautifully-drawn illustrations surrounding the handwritten text. The bible consists of two volumes, and one is always on display. For more information on the bible see here.

Across from the Mainz bible is the Gutenberg book. One of only 21 complete Gutenberg bibles in the world, this version is on vellum, making it more durable than paper ones. In fact, it is one of only three complete vellum versions, according to the display. The Gutenberg bible was the first major book created on a printing press in the world. For more information see here.

No photos of the bibles were allowed, so I took one from a few feet away to show how the Gutenberg bible is displayed.

Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson
Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson's Library

Early U.S. Documents

Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president, signed the law that established the library's structure in 1802. The original collection, stored in the U.S. Capital, was destroyed when British troops set fire to the building in 1814.

Jefferson offered to sell to the government his personal collection of books gathered over five decades, and the U.S. bought the library of almost 7,000 items for $23,950. Unfortunately, almost two-thirds of Jefferson's books were later destroyed in another fire, this time in 1851!

The Library of Congress has recreated Jefferson's library in a special exhibition on the second floor, with electronic kiosks that enables visitors to look up each individual book. It's a very nice tribute to a founder of the Library of Congress.

Again, no photography was allowed. So this photo of the Jefferson Library is from the Library of Congress website.

library of congress washington address
library of congress washington address

Creating the United States

Early American Documents from Washington to Paine

In the next room, the library has an exhibit called ''Creating the United States.'' The display shows books and documents leading up to the U.S. Revolution, and from the early years after the war when the Founding Fathers were struggling to create a new government.

The exhibition breaks itself down in two parts, the first focusing on the creation of the Declaration of Independence and the second on the struggle to come up with the U.S. Constitution. There are several dozen original documents to be seen, and they showed the way the forefathers worked to influence people to accept their ideas.

On display is a letter from General George Washington to John Hancock in 1776; Thomas Paine's ''Common Sense'' address printed in Philadelphia the same year; and a 1777 pamphlet of the articles of confederation between the states.

It was fascinating to look at Edmond Randolph's outline of the U.S. Constitution, with notations by John Rutledge, circa July 27, 1787, as well as George Mason's memorandum on proposed changes from Sept. 13 of that year. Mason's proposed amendments circa June 1788 are also present.

Also included is Washington's inaugural address from 1789, which I guess shows that things ended up pretty well!

The photo is from the Library of Congress's website.

library of congress waldseemuller map
library of congress waldseemuller map

The Library's Maps of America from the 1500s

The First Map to Name America!

Across the great hall on the second floor is one of the library's other prized possessions from centuries ago: The Waldseemuller map, the first to put the name ''America'' to the new continent.

While the other historical items were of great interest, this is the one that truly caught my attention. The huge wall map was created in April 1507, only 15 years after Christopher Columbus made his famous voyage! This is the only surviving copy of the 1,000 that the mapmaker, Martin Waldseemuller stated he printed.

There are a dozen sections to the map, which was printed from woodcuts measuring 18 x 24.5 inches. The map shows what little the Europeans knew about this newly discovered part of the world, and how mysterious it must have all seemed.

For more information of the map, see here.

The photo presented here is from the website.

library of congress jaguar
library of congress jaguar

The Library's ''Exploring the Early Americas'' Exhibit

On the Way to the Waldseemuller Map

The Waldseemuller map is at the rear of an exhibition known as ''Exploring the early Americas.'' Most of the displays focus on artifacts, maps, drawings and documents about the North and South America before the Europeans arrived, and include the jaguar sculpture shown here (image from the exhibit's catalog).

The jaguar, from Mexico circa 600 to 900 A.D., stands about three feet tall and is really beautiful. Also of note were some miniature village figures from 200 B.C. to 300 A.D.

There's also a second Waldseemuller wall map. This one, from 1516, is known as the 'Carta Marina' and is considered by some to be the first nautical map of the entire world. Interestingly, Waldseemuller omits the name 'America' from this one. It kind of makes you wonder whether that was just a mistake, or if there was some controversy going on about the name of the new land at the time.

Library of Congress Bob Hope
Library of Congress Bob Hope

The Bob Hope Gallery

Thanks for the Memories!

After spending a great deal of time studying the Waldseemuller map, we realize that we had only a few minutes left to see the rest of the library. We quickly went up the stairs to an overlook to see the library's main reading room, which is simply gorgeous. The room, with about 70,000 reference books on its shelves, is circular with one of the nicest domed ceilings I have ever seen (see photo accompanying the poll below).

We were then in a bit of a rush to get to the ground floor to see the rest of the exhibits. Actually, in too much of a rush, as I slipped and missed a step coming down from the overlook and ended up on the floor. Nothing broken, but marble really isn't very soft! That mishap slowed us a bit, but we did get down to see the Bob Hope Gallery.

The gallery uses the comedian's incredibly long career to illustrate how satire and humor at the expense of the government -- and especially U.S. presidents -- has been one of the greatest political freedoms we have. Hope's Presidential Medal of Freedom is displayed, along with letters from politicians like Lyndon Johnson to Hope in 1963.

Bob Hope, who died in 2003, may not be well-known to younger visitors. So there is a video tribute starring Stephen Colbert playing that presents Hope's career in its fullest. For more on Bob Hope see here.

Unfortunately, we ran out of time to see the Gershwin Room, which was right next door to the Bob Hope Gallery. We'll have to see that next time!

One of our greatest freedoms is to crack jokes at our government's expense.

Should We Be Able to Make Fun of the President?

The saying above is by Bob Hope, who knew and made fun of 11 presidents in a row.

He also said: When we're afraid to be funny about our political opponents, there won't be any politics left, just dictators.

Hope made his comments in the relatively more polite year of 1955, and much has changed in the United States since then. Many people say our political discourse has gotten much meaner and far coarser, and it's hard to disagree.

But are Hope's statements still true today?

Do you think Americans should be allowed to make fun of the president?

See results

A Curator's Guide to the Library of Congress

Kurt Maier's Book on the Library of Congress

Kurt Maier, a long-time curator at the Library of Congress and narrator of the above video tour, also has published a book in question-and-answer format with lots of information about the institution. The book is illustrated.

Check it out today!

Have You Toured the Library of Congress?

Library of congress ceiling
Library of congress ceiling

Our family really enjoyed our tour of the Library of Congress, and really believes that anybody planning a trip to Washington D.C. should take time to visit the place.

Have you already visited the library, or do you plan to? If yes, what did you think? If no, why not?

p.s. The photo above is the ceiling of the main reading room of the library.

Have you ever been to the Library of Congress?

See results

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We hope you enjoyed reading this tour of the Library of Congress as much as we did writing it. Now it's your turn!

Please let us know what you think of the library, Thomas Jefferson, this lens or anything else relevant.

Thanks for visiting!

What Do You Think of the Library of Congress? - This is Your Chance to Sound Off!

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    • KimGiancaterino profile image

      KimGiancaterino 3 years ago

      I've only been there once, but would love to go back.

    • trevorjb1406 profile image

      trevorjb1406 3 years ago

      Nice lens and interesting reading!

    • Kim Milai profile image

      Kim Milai 3 years ago

      My husband works there and has given us his own private tour. If you come to D.C. It shouldn't be missed. Great article with some things I didn't know about.

    • blestman lm profile image

      blestman lm 3 years ago

      Was there in 8th grade. I want to go back

    • Pam Irie profile image

      Pam Irie 3 years ago from Land of Aloha

      I've never had the opportunity. Wish I could go along on one of your family trips. Your family sure has had some great ones!

    • Johanna Eisler profile image

      Johanna Eisler 3 years ago

      I'm pretty sure that visiting the Library of Congress is out of the question for me... which is sad, because libraries in general are practically my favorite places in the world! I am so appreciative that the Library of Congress has seen fit to offer so many of its treasures to the world via their website!

    • allpurposeguru lm profile image

      allpurposeguru lm 3 years ago

      I have only been in the Library of Congress a couple of times, and that briefly. Once in high school and once for a Music Library Association meeting. It has a great concert hall. That's all I got to the last time. I sure am glad scans of so much of the collection are available online. Thanks for a good description with pictures--the next best thing to being there.

    • profile image

      eugenecepf2 3 years ago

      I don't think the current president would mind if we make fun of him.

    • RoadMonkey profile image

      RoadMonkey 4 years ago

      Very interesting lens. Would love to see the library but probably never will now. 3,000 miles is a bit far to go, when a lot of it is available on the internet, but it would be really nice to see it for real.

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 4 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      A beautiful tour and I am hoping to be able to physically go there some day. Thanks for sharing.

    • BLouw profile image

      Barbara Walton 4 years ago from France

      It looks fabulous. I'd love to visit but, in the meantime, thanks for your virtual tour of the Library.

    • DANCING COWGIRL profile image

      Dancing Cowgirl Design 4 years ago from Texas

      Very nice. I got to go there on a high school trip many years ago. I t is quite a sight to see.

    • profile image

      sybil watson 4 years ago

      What a fascinating place! I've never been to Washington D.C. and I can't wait until I'll be able to go there with my family. I had no idea that there was a Gutenberg bible on display.

    • profile image

      AlleyCatLane 4 years ago

      Had no idea that the library contained all of this. I would love to see it one day. Congrats on your purple star. Well-deserved!

    • girlfriendfactory profile image

      girlfriendfactory 4 years ago

      Now I want to get here even more!

    • LornsA178 profile image

      LornsA178 4 years ago

      This would be a great place to visit, there are a lot of interesting and educational things to learn. What a great lens!

    • pigwear profile image

      pigwear 4 years ago

      Great lens!

    • steve834 profile image

      steve834 4 years ago

      The library of congress is a huge and important resource and long may it carry on

    • CoolFool83 profile image

      CoolFool83 4 years ago

      Very educational lense!

    • Elaine Chen profile image

      Elaine Chen 4 years ago

      after visited this lens, i hope that I could visit Library of Congress in near future

    • Paul Ward profile image

      Paul 4 years ago from Liverpool, England

      I could happily live there :)

    • iijuan12 profile image

      iijuan12 4 years ago from Florida

      Nice lens! It's been a number of years since I last visited the Library of Congress. I wish we lived closer.

    • Stacy Birch profile image

      Stacy Birch 5 years ago

      Great lens, awesome pictures.

    • Brandi Bush profile image

      Brandi 5 years ago from Maryland

      Fascinating! As many times as I've been to DC, I don't think I've ever toured the Library of Congress. I'll have to make it a "must see" on my next trip! :)

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 5 years ago from Canada

      Your pictures of the library of Congress are amazing but I don't think that I will ever tour there. Thankfully though I've now toured this historical building through your eyes.

    • profile image

      homelibrary 5 years ago

      Great lens, I like libraries!

    • tomthiessen lm profile image

      tomthiessen lm 5 years ago

      I just watched National Treasure 2 the other night, so this was fun. :)

    • LivRiley LM profile image

      LivRiley LM 5 years ago

      I loved the Library of Congress! Washington DC was an interesting trip I took about 5 years ago. Would definitely go again.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Experienced about a great place. Thanks for sharing.

    • profile image

      JoshK47 5 years ago

      Wow - quite a lot of awesome stuff to experience there! Blessed by a SquidAngel!

    • profile image

      trendydad 5 years ago

      great info about the us library of congress, great lens

    • ikehook lm profile image

      ikehook lm 5 years ago

      good information, thanks for writing

    • flycatcherrr profile image

      flycatcherrr 5 years ago

      What a beautiful building! It's hard to even begin to imagine what treasures are in there.