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You’re inside the main public building of the Library of Congress—the magnificent, ornate, Italian Renaissance–style Thomas Jefferson Building. Maybe you’ve arrived via the tunnel that connects the Capitol and the Library of Congress, or maybe you’ve entered through the 1st Street doors. In any case, you’ll likely be startled—very startled—to find yourself suddenly inside a government structure that looks more like a palace. Before you stop in the Orientation Galleries to line up for the tour, take time to stroll around the building and just gape. Admire the stained-glass skylights overhead; glance down to the Italian marble floors inlaid with brass and concentric medallions; gaze right, left, and all around to try to take in the gorgeous murals, allegorical paintings, stenciling, sculptures, and intricately carved architectural elements. This building, more than any other in the city, is a visual treasure.

Now for the history lesson: Established in 1800 by an act of Congress, “for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress,” the library today also serves the nation, with holdings for the visually impaired (for whom books are recorded on cassette and/or translated into Braille), scholars in every field, college students, journalists, teachers, and researchers of all kinds. Its first collection of books was destroyed in 1814 when the British burned the Capitol (where the library was then housed) during the War of 1812. Thomas Jefferson then sold the institution his personal library of 6,487 books as a replacement, and this became the foundation of what would grow to become the world’s largest library.

The Jefferson Building was erected between 1888 and 1897 to hold the burgeoning collection and to establish America as a cultured nation with magnificent institutions equal to anything in Europe. Originally intended to hold the fruits of at least 150 years of collecting, the Jefferson Building was, in fact, filled up in a mere 13 years. It is now supplemented by the James Madison Memorial Building and the John Adams Building.

Today the collection contains a mind-boggling 158 million items. Its buildings house more than 36.8 million cataloged books; 68.9 million manuscripts; millions and millions of prints and photographs, audio holdings (discs, tapes, talking books, and so on), movies, and videotapes; musical instruments from the 1700s; and the letters and papers of everyone from George Washington to Groucho Marx. Its archives also include the letters, oral histories, photographs, and other documents of war veterans from World War I to the present, all part of its Veterans History Project; go to www.loc.gov/vets to listen to or read some of these stories, especially if you plan on visiting the National World War II Memorial. Allow me to point you to the story of one soldier in particular, that of my father, Richard A. Hartman; go to http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/story/loc.natlib.afc2001001.00067/.

In addition to its art and architecture, the Library displays ongoing exhibits of objects taken from its permanent collections. The concerts that take place in the Jefferson Building’s elegant Coolidge Auditorium are free but require tickets, which you can obtain through Ticketmaster (www.ticketmaster.com). Across Independence Avenue from the Jefferson Building is the Madison Building, which houses the Copyright Office, administrative offices, and venues for author readings and other events.

Using the library: Anyone 16 and over may use the library’s collections, but first you must obtain a user card with your photo on it. You can get the process started by pre-registering online at https://wwws.loc.gov/readerreg/remote. Whether pre-registered or not, you must go to Reader Registration in Room LM 140 (street level of the Madison Building) and present your driver’s license or passport. Staff will verify your identity, take a photo, and present you with your user card. Then head to the Information Desk in either the Jefferson or the Madison building to find out about the research resources available to you and how to use them. Most likely, you will be directed to the Main Reading Room. All books must be used on-site.