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Highlights of the Library of Congress: Thomas Jefferson, Bob Hope and the Gutenberg Bible!
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
For More Information:
- Library of Congress Home
The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress is the nation's oldest federal cultural institution, and it serves as the research arm of Congress. It is also the largest library in the world, with more than 120 million items.
- Library of Congress - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
This is the wikipedia page dedicated to the library.
Have You Toured the Library of Congress?
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?
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