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The World's Memory Keepers

The Main Reading Room, Michael Dersin

Photo by Michael Dersin

The Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

At a time when so many libraries are suffering, the people who work at massive national libraries remain busier than ever. And at the imposing, historically charged U.S. Library of Congress, they’re using advanced technology to solve the cultural mysteries of the past.

Unlike John Boehner, Harry Reid or anybody else who’s been elected to federal office, I can’t check a book out of the Library of Congress. But on a warm Washingtonian morning, I get out of a cab on Independence Avenue and find my way to the entrance of the James Madison Memorial Building, one of the many white marble monoliths that loom over D.C.’s wide boulevards. I’m here to get the best library card in the world—even if I can’t borrow the books.

At the door, above a heavy sculpture of bronze books flocked in formation like so many geese, one of the great man’s most intimidating and empowering quotes is chiseled in all caps, “KNOWLEDGE WILL FOREVER GOVERN IGNORANCE.” I empty my pockets, shove my iPhone through a metal detector and discover that once you’re inside the Madison building, the 19th century fades away and you find yourself in the middle of the familiar drab of the institutional 1980s. I walk down a gray government hallway to a beige government waiting room.

Fittingly, Room LM 140 is the perfect literary tribute to any Kafkaesque anteroom in the world, whether consulate, DMV or post office: fluorescent lighting, a row of chairs waiting against the wall, a few old PCs, a couple of low-energy employees. It’s 10:30 in the morning, but there are only three people ahead of me. I take a number anyway, fill out a form with some perfunctory information, punch that exact same information into an identical computerized form (slow time of the day or not, this is still the federal government—there are i’s to be dotted and t’s to be crossed, thoroughly, in duplicate) and wait for one of the desk workers to wave me over and nod at my completed application before snapping my photo with one of those tiny bureaucratic desktop cameras.

After 36 years, a few months, and, oh, about the last 20 minutes, I finally have a Library of Congress Reader Identification Card. It’s one of the most patriotic (and geekiest) moments of my life.

Anybody over the age of 16 can get a readers card to do research at the Library of Congress, and once you have it—well, the possibilities are as close as we’ve come in the annals of human civilization to being literally endless.

The Library of Congress has 37 million books in three gigantic buildings. But in addition to books, there are 151 million “items,” including Sumerian tablets, scrolls, records, CDs, maps, tapes, instruments, rugs . . . the list goes on. There are 21 reading rooms, eight exhibition galleries and 3,300 employees, paid out of an annual budget of $589 million a year. This massive collection is at the service of not only Congress and the library’s nearly 2 million annual visitors, but it’s available online at loc.gov to anybody with access to a computer. This Library is thriving at a time when libraries—branches big and small—seem to be in a perpetual crisis. Even the storied New York Public Library is selling off two buildings and offloading seven floors of books to a warehouse in New Jersey. The NYC Central Library, for decades a research library that nurtured the careers of writers such as Norman Mailer, Frank McCourt, Somerset Maugham, Tom Wolfe and E. L. Doctorow, is being converted into something of a central branch with an expanded gallery space. It’s practical, but the mission seems to be less ambitious, more provincial. Not so with the Library of Congress. Here, each visitor, whether physical or virtual, researcher or tourist, will inevitably take something away (except one of the books, of course, although the LoC does have a first-rate book store).

The thing is, you don’t really need a reader identification card to experience the LoC as a tourist. Everything is free to begin with, and the card doesn’t hustle you through the exhibits like a Disney World FastPass or anything. But the actual card-carrying inclusion in this Promethean entity made me proud to be an American and, in the more universal sense, proud to be a writer and a reader. President Jefferson, whose personal library was acquired to reseed the LoC’s collection after the British burned the Capitol in 1814 (his motives weren’t altogether noble—Monticello needed the influx of cash), reasoned that a congressional library was useful to Congress because “there is no subject [to which] a member of Congress should not have occasion to refer.” It’s Jefferson’s legacy that the Library of Congress is a monument to know-it-alls and nerds everywhere, in the most democratic and universal spirit.

As soon as I am back outside in the heavy D.C. air, it seems unaccountably brighter out, muggier, too. This can’t be attributed only to the Dixie barometer. Was I really in there for only 20 minutes? Standing outside, equidistant to the LoC’s enormous library buildings, everything starts to swim a little bit. I have so much to learn. Just a little bit later, in fact, I do learn (and over my two days at the Library of Congress, I will learn so many things) that the librarians refer to my experience as “threshold fear,” a common condition among visitors to the largest library in the world. It’s time to figure out exactly what I’ve gotten myself into.


The exterior of the Jefferson building. Photo by Lisa Whittle.


Across the street from the Madison building is its more famous antecedent, the Thomas Jefferson Building. Constructed under the auspices of librarian of congress Ainsworth Spofford, a man appointed by President Lincoln in 1864, it was finally opened in 1897. Back then, the United States was a young nation, and our new library was an ambitious nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah to the great libraries of Europe, such as the British Museum Library in London, with its brilliant Royal Reading Room, and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, arguably the birthplace of philosophical classification and denomination as a means of organizing civilization.

I’m shown around by Giulia Adelfio, a woman dressed in colorful harem pantaloons with a pair of glasses that look like they were engineered by little green reference librarians from the future. She’s straight out of central casting, except “I’m not a librarian,” she protests. She just knows everything about the library.

Adelfio is the one who coined the term “threshold fear,” and as visitors services director, she’s responsible for alleviating that particular anxiety. For two hours, Adelfio illuminates the meaning of every handcrafted mosaic, every figurative sculpture, every allegorical painting or famous inscription. She tells me why the winged American cherubs decorating the ornate Great Hall were sculpted as workers—gardeners, cooks and technicians—while over in the European libraries, the putti eternally float around on clouds. She spits out facts and anecdotes about the men responsible for building this place.

The Jefferson building was constructed in an Italian Renaissance style. “Everything is symmetrical,” she says. “Everything in balance.” In one hallway, the three classical graces unfold into the four seasons. Adelfio leads me down a sublime wormhole familiar to any Dan Brown aficionado. Semiotics unfold into deeper semiotics. In fact, the entire building was constructed in the shape of a square with a cross in the middle, and right in the crucible—its sanctum sanctorum—is the Main Reading Room.

The Main Reading Room, which has 236 desks for readers, houses the library’s humanities and social sciences collection. We’re at an observation balcony, and Adelfio tells me to look up. There are 16 bronze statues of great men—Homer, Beethoven, Newton—representing eight categories of knowledge standing several stories over the researchers. “And you can’t see it from here,” she says. “You can only see it from the floor, but in the middle of the dome you can see a beautiful woman with putti on either side pulling the veil of ignorance off her eyes,” she says. “You can see around the collar of the dome.” I nod and gape. “There are 12 figures that represent different societies that gave something to the world as we understood it in 1897.” She rattles them like a sailor naming familiar stars. “Egypt for the written word, Judea for religion, Greece for philosophy, Rome for administration, Islam for physics, Germany for printing, Italy for the fine arts, Spain for discovery, England for literature, France for emancipation,” and then she points at a figure of Lincoln next to an electric dynamo. “And America is up there for its understanding of science.”

On the way out, she guides me past the library’s crown jewel: its pristine Gutenberg Bible. One of only three remaining perfect copies made using vellum, it was purchased as part of a larger collection of European incunabula by Congress in 1930 for a then-unheard-of sum of $1.3 million. She recommends a Stephen Fry BBC documentary on Gutenberg’s medieval printing technology. “It’s hard to find,” she says, somewhat skeptical of my own Google reference skills, “but it’s wonderful.” (When I get back to my hotel, I end up emailing her to help me find a link—it’s called The Machine that Made Us—and she’s right, it’s wonderful.)

As Adelfio leads me through this legendary library’s past, it dawns on me how important technology was to America’s quest for knowledge and, consequently, to its quest for power. “Look at the light bulbs in the foyer,” she says. “This was the first building in Washington to be built with electricity.” She says that they installed gas lines, too, just in case electricity didn’t work, but technology like electricity and telephones demonstrated a rising modern power. “There was an influx of populations from the South, and the city needed more infrastructure,” she says, “but this was a ‘Look at what we’ve got, Europe. You had no faith in us, and look at what we got.’


Restoring artwork in the Great Hall. Photo by Carol Highsmith.


Of course, we’re way beyond light bulbs now. I’m back in the Madison building, except this time stories below Room LM 140. I’m in a subbasement, the location of the conservation labs. We got here through an underground tunnel connecting the two buildings—the library is connected through a network of subterranean passageways that meet up with the Capitol Visitors Center.

Down here, things are more CSI than Hogwarts. I’m introduced to Fenella France, chief of the library’s Preservation Research and Testing Division. France is one of the world’s leading textile preservation scientists—she got the call from the Smithsonian 11 years ago to head up its attempt to restore the original Star-Spangled Banner, the gigantic woolen flag that flew over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry in 1812 as the bombs burst and inspired Francis Scott Key to compose the national anthem. She’s been with the LoC for the past five years—an interval, according to France, during which the library has intensified its focus on leading-edge technology.

France is wearing a white lab coat as she shows me around a clean, well-lit space—it’s disorienting to think that we’re so far underground—with very scientific-looking apparatus sitting on stainless steel shelves. She points out an electron microscope used for analyzing unstable elements such as lead or tin found in the pigments of 500-year-old illuminated Bibles, pigments that hundreds of years later can darken the delicate foot of a painted saint. She shows me a 39-megapixel hyperspectral imaging camera, a machine originally intended for medical imaging, now used to shoot a map from antiquity or a 19th-century draft of an inaugural address with low-heat, low-light LED, and then to stack together a sequence of images inside and outside of the visible continuum, from ultraviolet all the way to infrared.

She explains why this is helpful. “Take the Madison papers,” she says in a Kiwi accent that makes it sound like “medicine papers.” “Madison was notoriously difficult to hear—he mumbled a lot—so the note-takers at the U.S. Constitutional debates didn’t always understand what he was saying.” Decades later, Madison went back to their notes and corrected or erased certain passages. Today, centuries later, the hyperspectral camera is able to restore some of that information.

Most famously, about two years ago, France and her team used the hyperspectral camera to separate out several layers of ink to determine that in his draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson smudged out the word subjects and replaced it with citizens. “That was a fun one to work on,” France says. Jefferson had been copying from the Virginia Constitution, a document written two months earlier, but he thought subjects wasn’t appropriate for the new republic. “He expunged it so it would never be seen again,” she says. “But we brought it back, so now we know what he was thinking.”

France points out that she is a scientist, not a historian, so she works closely with the curatorial and conservation departments to fully illuminate cases such as Jefferson’s smudge. In another subbasement, I meet Yasmeen Khan, the rare book conservator, as she and her colleagues prepared a series of artifacts for a Civil War exhibit that will open in the Jefferson building in November. As I tour the department, conservators in white gloves are working on various artifacts. One is repairing the leather case used to carry a silver plate photograph, another is using methyl cellulose to painstakingly remove paper tape that had been used to hold together a William Waud battlefield drawing of General Sherman and his troops in Savannah.

Khan, who is of Pakistani descent and speaks in a delicate British accent, describes how a team of conservators and one scientist used data on paint samples to completely recreate the color palate of an Armenian artist’s 500-year- old painting of St. Mark, to determine the stability of the pigments. She explains that it is not solely text that hands meaning down through posterity. “Everything that is created by a human being is a record of thought, technology and culture at the moment of its creation,” she says. “Not just the text.”

She explains how context and content are even paramount to the LoC’s digital initiatives. Many books are available on the LoC’s website, for instance, but unlike the books scanned in by, say, Google, pages from the LoC are scanned in their entirety. “Google is just about text, just about content,” she says. “So there’s less research value. The library wants to show things that are as close to the original.”


The dome of the Main Reading Room.

Now I’m in the Main Reading Room, alone. I had to use my reader identification card to get in here. It must be the quietest room in Washington—difficult to believe that there are hundreds of tourists and school kids on field trips outside these marble walls. But there’s a pleasant, scholastic hush in here, underneath the bronze gaze of Plato and Homer. I can look up and see the two cupids lifting away the veil of ignorance now. I found a book called The Real Bohemia: A Sociological and Psychological Study of the “Beats” by Francis J. Rigney and L. Douglas Smith. There’s a glossary of Beat terms in the front with an asterisk that notes “as of August 1959.” One of my favorite entries (among many): “CAT: a person who is a hipster (male or female).” Somebody must still say cat out there, right? Maybe things haven’t changed so much after all, despite all the light bulbs and telephones and electron microscopes and hyperspectral imaging machines.

I’m sitting in the inner sanctum of an institution that continues apace in its universal conservation of cultural artifacts—two years ago, Twitter donated its archive of public tweets to the LoC. As local branch libraries struggle—whether in New York City or Minneapolis—the big ones, the national institutions—the LoC, the British Museum, the Bibliothèque Nationale—continue their work with the necessary budgets and personnel. Cataloging. Itemizing. Filing away.

Spill It: Tell Us What You Think!

Bruce Liebman
in Mya Frazier's article on Unbound, August issue, page 30, there is chart in the middle of the page with book sales. Can I ask what the source of that data is? thanks much
8/26/2012 5:23:39 PM

Margie Thoma
Good article but it took me and a co-wowrker 15 - 20 tries to send it to my daughter who works at the LoC. Your passwords to prevent spam are TOO HARD to distinguish.
8/29/2012 12:46:15 PM

Fred Schutmaat
I fly Delta almost exclusively now. I always at least look through the SKY magazine and find it interesting. This issue struck a cord big time when I read Steve's article about the Library of Congress. I read it several times on several flights and have about 8 issues in my office. I hand them out to my library "geek" colleagues. Well done! Great article !
9/7/2012 12:43:50 PM

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