Library of Congress

Description And Comments

The Library of Congress is the world’s largest library collection, holding more than 23 million books and 135 million other documents. Although it is literally the library for the U.S. Congress’ research needs, anyone can use the Library’s materials while inside the building, with proper ID.

Most people opt to tour the Library rather than read in it, and for good reason: it’s a beautiful building. Completed in the Beaux-Arts style (as are New York’s Public Library and Grand Central Terminal) in 1897, the Great Hall inside of the building features soaring ceilings and dozens of murals by some of America’s great artists. These murals cover a range of topics, and each usually gets several scenes across a wall or ceiling. Topics include everything from the evolution of the written word, to good and bad government, to how to live a nice life. Along with these are statues, carvings, and other decorations, celebrating science, reason, printing, and more.

The main floor of the Great Hall contains two priceless bibles on display: a Gutenberg Bible and the Giant Bible of Mainz, both from 15th-century Germany. The Gutenberg Bible on display here is one of 23 surviving, complete examples. It’s important because this set of Bibles is the first well-known book to be produced using moveable-type printing, which set off a revolution in publishing with it was invented by Johannes Gutenberg. With fast, inexpensive printing, scientists, explorers, and scholars spread their discoveries in books and essays. This led to an incredible explosion of knowledge, helping to kick off the Renaissance that led (eventually) to the ideas of government on which the United States is based.

The Main Reading Room, on the second floor, is topped with a 160-foot rotunda, also elaborately decorated. Even if you’re not planning to read, you can tour the room from the second floor.

Besides the architecture, the Library hosts a series of permanent and rotating exhibits. Permanent exhibits include displays of entertainer Bob Hope’s personal memorabilia (including his legendary file of jokes); and one dedicated to composer George Gershwin.

The rotating exhibits are done with a lot of thought, and are very good. Since you’re in a library, these displays focus on important documents. Past themes have included maps, political cartoons, The U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, and chamber music.

Touring Tips

The Library’s architecture is a big draw, so expect waits of 20-30 minutes to get through security and into the Great Hall.

Free, guided, one-hour tours are available on the half-hour from 10:30 AM to 3:30 PM weekdays, and 2:30 PM weekends. Reservations aren’t available. On most non-busy days, plan on arriving around 20 minutes before the tour to get a space; on busy days arrive 45 minutes to an hour ahead, put your name in, and grab a snack while you wait.


10 1st St SE
Washington, D.C.
Capitol South
Metro Center

Mon-Sat 8:30am-5pm