Ten Places to Explore at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C.

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Washington D.C, the capital of America, is full of historical places and attractions that are FREE and open to the public throughout the year. One of the most beautiful spots to explore is the Library of Congress, located on Capitol Hill and next door to the Supreme Court Building.

The Library of Congress, the world’s largest library, was first created by President John Adams in 1800. The original collection of 700+ books and maps used by Congress was destroyed in a fire set by British troops during an invasion in 1814. Thomas Jefferson later sold thousands of books from his personal collection to Congress to help establish a new Congressional library, which quickly expanded and needed a new space. The separate Library opened in 1897, and was later named for Jefferson, with two additional buildings built: the Adams Building (across the street) was added in 1938 and the Madison Building (next door and across Independence Avenue SE) added in 1980. The Jefferson Building was the first building in Washington D.C. to be built with electricity and it includes the work of over 40 painters and sculptors. 

The Library of Congress’s current collection includes over 175 million items (51 million cataloged books and print materials, 4+ million recordings, 17+ million photographs, almost 6 million maps, 8+ million pieces of sheet music, and over 77 million manuscripts) and welcomes millions of visitors each year to tour its beautiful halls and conduct research (by appointment) in the famous Main Reading Room and adjacent reading rooms. The Library of Congress archives thousands of objects each year, hosts concerts and performances, and is the home to the U.S. Copyright Office. 

Travel Tips:

  • The Library of Congress is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10am-5pm, with extended hours on Thursday evenings, and special hours to walk through the Main Reading Room. The Library is free to visit, but online reservations are strongly encouraged. Check here for up to date information on hours and reservations.
  • Tours are set to resume in the spring of 2024- check here for updates.
  • The Visitors’ Entrance is underneath the stairs in the center of the front of the building. All visitors must pass through metal detectors upon entering and have their bags checked upon leaving. Large backpacks are not allowed and must be checked.
  • There are restrooms on the ground and first levels and a coat and bag check on the ground floor. See a good map of the Jefferson Building here
  • Parking can be a hassle. There are metered, two hour parking spaces on streets in the surrounding area, but open spaces are hard to find. The closest parking garage is at Union Station. It’s a better bet to take public transportation- check here for more information. The closest Metro station is Capitol South or Union Station. 
  • The Library is handicap accessible via an elevator and strollers are allowed.
  • The Library Shop is located on the ground level and sells a curated collection of souvenirs, gifts, and books. Great items for book lovers!
  • There are no dining facilities on site, but several picnic tables are located outside the front entrance. Good dining guides to the DC area can be found here and here.
  • Check here for the online tour and here for the audio tour
  • Plan on 90 minutes to fully explore the Library and exhibits.

Ten Places to Explore at the Library of Congress Jefferson Building:

  1. Complete the Scavenger Hunt while touring the Library. Kids (and kids at heart) can pick up a free scavenger hunt after the security check and search for animals hidden throughout the carved marble, in the staircase, and even outside the building! Make sure kids also go online to access tons of author programs, activity kits, and worksheets and posters to print. 
  2. A copy of the Gutenberg Bible. The Gutenberg Bible is the first book printed in Western Europe, in 1450,  that used “moveable metal type.” Gutenberg produced less than two hundred copies of the Bible, and today, about 20 complete copies still exist. The Library of Congress’s copy is unique in that it was printed on vellum, made from animal skins. The Bible has three volumes and the Library staff rotates the volume, and even the page, on display every three months.
  3. Not an Ostrich exhibit, the current exhibit in 2024, of 400 curated pieces of photography from the Library’s collection of over 14 million photographs. 
  4. The Great Hall, created in the Italian-Renaissance style with 75 foot ceilings. Be sure to look up and see the beautiful stained glass skylights and triangular vaults displaying the names of famous writers, and some of their most famous quotes, and look down at the floor, which displays the 12 zodiac sign. 
  5. The marble staircases to the second floor showcase sculptures of children representing careers such as electrician, gardener, and teacher. 
  1. The Thomas Jefferson Library, a reconstruction of part of Jefferson’s original collection. The display is circular with books labeled into four categories, including ones that were a part of Jefferson’s original collection. There is a large interactive television that allows guests to ask questions to a virtual (but live) librarian. 
  2. The Join Us exhibit, showcasing voluntary associations in America. Learn all about various groups and how to get involved in your own community. 
  3. The mosaic of Minerva at the top of the stairs leading to the overlook for the Main Reading Room. The Roman goddess of wisdom and defensive war, Minerva is holding a spear and a scroll. 
  4. The Main Reading Room; climb the stairs (an elevator is available) to peer down into the Main Reading Room, which includes 236 desks for reading and research, and 16 bronze statues which honor men “whose lives symbolized the thought and activity represented by the plaster statues”, according to the Library. Be sure to look around the round room to see the ten foot high female figures, representing “characteristics of civilized societies”: religion, commerce, history, art, philosophy, poetry, law, and science.  The Main Reading Room is accessible via a reservation
  5. The 1507 map, considered the most important map in the world because it included the Pacific Ocean as a body of water (at that time, not yet seen by Europeans), it included a fourth continent, and it used the word “Americi” for the first time. 

Bonus: Kids will enjoy the Young Readers Center & Programs Lab (open Wednesday through Saturday) and the Lab’s various activities centered around the Library’s collections.

Looking for other adventures in Washington D.C.? Check out our feature of FREE things to do, and our posts featuring the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, the National Zoo, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of African American History & Culture, the National Museum of the American Indian, the International Spy Museum, the National Building Museum, the National Postal Museum, and Mount Vernon. And follow along on our adventures on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and X.

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5 Comments

  1. The Library of Congress is on my list of must-see places in Washington and I will definitely use your recommendations. Thanks for the useful tips!

  2. Can I access the Main Reading Room, and are there any tips for preparing a research visit to make the most out of the Library’s resources? Is this something you’re allowed to do? Thanks!

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