Library of Congress Tours Overview
Library of Congress tours will teach you about the official library of the United States congress, the oldest cultural institution in the country, and the largest library in the country. It’s arguably the most beautiful building in Washington DC and boasts an incredible collection of research resources.
Anyone can visit the Library of Congress and tours are offered throughout the day. However, it’s also a functioning library and research center that can be used by anyone. We highly recommend the Library of Congress as a place to read, write, work, or conduct research. To use the Library of Congress’s research areas, such as the Computer Catalog Centers or the Copyright Office, you must have a library-issued Reader Identification Card. This card will also allow you to request materials from the Library of Congress online.
The cards are freely available as long as you are over 16 years old, and are valid for two years.
Library of Congress Tours
You can take several Library of Congress tours around the building, including the free one hour walking tour of the Jefferson Building (no reservation needed), or a more specific guided on a particular topic or collection (reservation required). See the Library’s website for more information and a list of current tours.
Library of Congress tours are also part of the TripScout mobile app’s Washington DC tour.
Library of Congress Hours
It is a good idea to check individual Reading Room hours as they vary. Different building have different opening times:
Thomas Jefferson (Entrance for All)
Monday – Saturday, 8:30am – 5:00pm.
James Madison Memorial Building
Monday – Friday, 8:30am – 9:30pm (some rooms close at 6pm)
Saturday: 8:30am – 5:00pm.
C Street, SE
Monday –Friday, 8:30am – 2:00pm for entrance, 8:30am – 9:30pm for exit.
John Adams Building
Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, 8:30 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. (researchers only after 6pm)
Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, 8:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Download the TripScout guide and you can listen to the the Library of Congress tours while you sit in the Reading Room – just make sure to have headphones since it’s a library!
Get a Library of Congress Library Card
You don’t need a library card for Library of Congress tours, but you will go inside the Reading Room or take advantage of their resource facilities. You can register in person at the Reader Registration Station in the Madison Building, Room LM 140 (next door to the Library of Congress. This is located on the First Floor, near the Independence Avenue entrance. It’s open from 8:30am – 4:30pm, Monday through to Saturday.
To register, make sure you bring a valid driver’s license, state issued identification card or passport. If you are an international visitor, it is best to bring your passport as other forms of ID may not be accepted outside your home country.
You will need to get your ID verified, provide your digitized signature and be photographed for your card. You will receive your card on the spot before you leave. You will be able to walk over to the Library of Congress afterwards. This is the perfect thing to get before or after you go on one of the Library of Congress tours.
Pre-Register for your Library of Congress Library Card
You can pre-register online up to two weeks in advance, in order to speed up the process. There is a web form available on the Library of Congress website.
You can then collect your card by showing valid ID at the Reader Registration Station. You will still need to get a photo taken, and provide a digitized signature.
Library of Congress Tours: History & Building Details
The Library of Congress is the oldest cultural institution in the country. It was established by an act of Congress in the year 1800 to be the official library for the United States congress – in case you couldn’t guess that from its name.
It was originally stocked with legal books and other subjects considered necessary for legislators. However, that soon changed. After British troops raided the building and either destroyed or stole most of the books in the library, Thomas Jefferson, who personally had one of the largest libraries in the world offered to sell his own personal collection of over 6,400 books for $24,000 to restore the library. While the library needed more books, the Congress didn’t have any interest in Jefferson’s collection initially. A true intellectual and renaissance man, Jefferson’s library included books on nearly every topic and in multiple languages.
What use did the U.S. congress have for books on ancient philosophy, French cooking, and statistics in Russian? A lot, argued Jefferson. A healthy republic should be concerned with ever topic. The library was eventually convinced and took that philosophy to another level.
It is now the largest library in the United States, possessing approximately 40 million books in nearly 500 different languages. It also has approximately 6 million maps, which is the largest collection in the world, 7 million sheets of music, 4 million audio recordings, and 14 million photographs. And these numbersare growing as it adds over 10,000 new items every day. And since 2006, the Library of Congress has been collecting and archiving every single public tweet made on Twitter. All these physical items would of course be too large to fit in the building, so most are now stored offsite in separate facilities, but still available to anyone who wants to reserve them.
The Library of Congress is also home to the largest collection of rare and historical books in North America, such as one of only three perfect copies of the Gutenberg Bible, which was the first major book printed using movable type.
The building itself is one of the most impressive and elaborate buildings in DC. At the front of the building is the Neptune Fountain showing King Neptune, the Roman god of the sea and the brother of Minerva, and his court. The front façade of the main entrance facing the Capitol features nine prominent busts of Great Men as selected in accordance with Gilded Age ideals, a term coined by Mark Twain that represented an era of rapid economic growth, rising wages, increased industrialization, and increased immigration. From left to right when one faces the building, they are Demosthenes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington Irving, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Babbington Macaulay, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sir Walter Scott, and Dante Alighieri. Thirty three heads decorate the first-story windows modeled after different ethnic races, from Arab to Zulu.
When you walk into the main entrance, The Great Hall is a beautiful site with numerous busts, statues, and paintings symbolizing knowledge and American history. I highly recommend the free tour to learn all the intricacies of this room. The Hall leads you to the main reading room.
The Reading Room is highlighted by marble columns and numerous statues of famous thought leaders and cultural icons throughout history. The ceiling of the dome is an ornate painting entitled Human Understanding. It features a female in the act of lifting the veil of ignorance and looking forward to intellectual progress. She is accompanied by two angels. One angel is holding the book of wisdom and knowledge, while the other encourages onlookers to persist in their struggle toward perfection. There is a mural of twelve seated figures that surround the painting, representing the civilizations that were thought to have contributed the most to the evolution of western civilization. In order, the figures represent:
- Egypt, representing Written Records. And then progressing on to
- Judea, representing Religion.
- Greece, representing Philosophy.
- Rome, representing Administration.
- Islam, representing Physics.
- The Middle Ages, representing Modern Languages.
- Italy, representing the Fine Arts.
- Germany, representing the Art of Printing.
- Spain, representing Discovery.
- England, representing Literature.
- France, representing Emancipation. And then finally ending at
- America, which represents Science.
The statues positioned along the interior encircling the room and looking onto the library represent the various facets of knowledge and progress. They include:
- Michelangelo and Beethoven for Art
- Christopher Columbus and Robert Fulton for Commerce
- Herodotus and Edward Gibson, for History
- Solon and James Kent for Law
- Plato and Francis Bacon for Philosophy
- Homer and Shakespeare for Poetry
- Moses and St Paul the Apostle for Religion
- Sir Isaac Newton and Joseph Henry for Science
Enjoy your Library of Congress tours!
Library of Congress tours pictures above are from Flickr. Photographers are in order: Jim McIntosh, Glyn Lowe, Forsaken Fotos.
Library of Congres Tours Benefits
- Curated Sites
- Audio Tours
- Offline Map
National Mall Tour
Washington DC Museums
Library of Congress
Washington DC Food Tour
White House Tour
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