From the Vaults: Library of Congress Research

Posted on July 15, 2014

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I’ve taken time off from blogging lately for a busy summer including a week of World Pride festivities and ongoing home renovations. Also tucked in there somewhere was a trip to Washington, DC where I took the opportunity to do something I had long dreamed of: research at the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world.

For other bibliophiles wondering what the experience was like, here are some highlights:

(Google Earth)

(Google Earth)

There are actually three buildings that make up the library: the Thomas Jefferson Building is the oldest and most famous and dates back to 1897, the John Adams Building was built next in 1938, and the James Madison Memorial Building was added in 1981.

(Peter Marshall)

Tunnels below the Jefferson Building.

Much of the library is located below ground.  There are 500 miles of underground rooms that store the library’s collections accessed by a network of tunnels that also connect the three buildings to each other (and to the U.S. Capitol).  The tunnels are accessible to visitors although it takes a bit of hunting to find them.

The Jefferson Building’s Great Hall. (Wikipedia)

The Jefferson Building’s Great Hall. (Wikipedia)

The Jefferson Building’s “Great Hall” is actually relatively small.  However, its spectacular architecture and decor is on par with Europe’s grand opera houses.

Main Reading Room of the Jefferson building. (Wikipedia)

Main Reading Room of the Jefferson building. (Wikipedia)

The  Jefferson’s main reading room is also smaller than it appears in photographs and certainly a far cry from the breathtaking expanse of the New York Public Library’s main reading room.  Still, it is a beautiful room even if visitors are only able to view it from a plexiglass-encased balcony.  (It is open to the public only on President’s Day.)

The Science and Business Reading Room in the John Adams Building.  (Library of Congress)

The Science and Business Reading Room in the John Adams Building. (Library of Congress)

The library’s numerous other reading rooms are not visible to the public and can only be accessed by researchers.   Any adult can qualify as a researcher by presenting photo ID and registering for a free Reader Identification Card.

Side room off the Science and Business Reading Room.  My home for the day. (Peter Marshall)

Side room off the Science and Business Reading Room used for photographing, copying and scanning library materials.

I was excited when I was initially told that that my materials would be delivered to the famous Jefferson reading room.  However, when I arrived there I was informed that because there were so many materials requested they had been delivered to the notably less spectacular main reading room in the Adams Building.  Moreover, because I would be taking photos I was sequestered to a side room that very much resembled a fallout shelter slash bank vault.   So my research experience didn’t turn out to be particularly glamourous but it was highly productive nonetheless.

My reading assignment. (Peter Marshall)

My reading assignment.

I have to say that the Library goes out of its way to accommodate out-of-town visitors.  I was able to pre-register for my ID card online and place an advance request for my materials to ensure they would all be ready for me when I arrived.  The items I requested were menswear periodicals intended to fill in some of the gaps from my previous research: Men’s Wear issues from the 1900s, Apparel Arts issues from the late 1930s, and GQ issues from the early 1960s.  I photographed hundreds of pages during my research, some of the content of which will be included in the third edition of the Guide next year.  In the meantime, I’ll be posting some of the more interesting discoveries over the next few days.

Posted in: Updates