By JOHN Y. COLE
The Library of Congress, during its nearly 200 years, has been identified in the public mind in as many ways as it has constituencies.
The Bicentennial theme of "Libraries, Creativity, Liberty" encompasses one set of ideals and symbols: the Library of Congress, like all libraries, fosters education, creativity and democracy. Most members of Congress focus on the Library's chief mission: providing research to lawmakers in carrying out their duties. Researchers and subject specialists appreciate the richness of the collections. Others, especially visitors to Washington, know the Library mostly through its monumental 1897 Jefferson Building, an elaborately decorated architectural tribute to the universality and importance of recorded knowledge. Librarians know the institution primarily as a resource -- as the largest library in the world and as a major source of bibliographic and technical data. Those served directly by the Copyright Office, the Law Library and the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped know the services of those offices. The Library's historical role as a legislative institution that also serves the nation and the world additionally has helped shape public perceptions.
The Library's Bicentennial programs include each of these constituencies, often making use of established Library of Congress symbols and logos.
The U.S. Postal Service and the U.S. Mint will mark the Library's 200th birthday on April 24 by issuing a 33-cent commemorative stamp (see page 31) and two commemorative coins. The stamp and the coin are themselves of historical importance. The Library has only sponsored two other stamps, and the coins will be the first to honor a library. By acquainting a wide audience with symbols that characterize and identify the Library today, the stamp and coins will help increase the Library's visibility throughout the nation.
The stamp, reminiscent of the Bicentennial logo, features the interior dome of the Library's Main Reading Room, with Edwin Blashfield's mural The Evolution of Civilization at the top center. The $1 silver coin contains the Torch of Learning from the Jefferson Building dome, an open book, and the dates "1800-2000" on one side, and the entire dome of the Jefferson Building on the other. The $10 bimetallic coin highlights the Library's seal on one side and, on the other, Minerva's hand holding a torch in the Jefferson Building's Great Hall with the Jefferson Building in the background. This coin is gold and platinum and is the nation's first bimetallic commemorative.
Seals, Bookplates, Insignia and Souvenirs
Through the years, many different bookplates, seals and insignia have represented the Library. A formidable array was published on the cover of the catalog for the Library's 1950 Sesquicentennial exhibition. The Library's bookplates between 1815 and 1864 were published in William Dawson Johnston's History of the Library of Congress 1800-1864 (1904). It is interesting to note that the phrase "Library of Congress" is used on each, even though generally speaking the institution was referred to as "the Congressional Library," at least by the press, throughout most of the 19th century. The 1997 exhibition, "The Thomas Jefferson Building: Book Palace of the American People," featured popular souvenirs depicting the building when it opened in 1897. The eclectic assortment included spoons, plates, cups and saucers, scissors, letter openers, watch fobs, paperweights and napkins rings, most of them celebrating the "New Library of Congress."
Civilization, Knowledge, and Learning
The Jefferson Building itself is the Library's best known symbol. When it opened in 1897, the press called it a "monument to civilization," and "the book palace of the American people." Its iconography, borrowed heavily from the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, emphasizes Western civilization and implies that America has become its capstone. Or at least that the future belongs to America.
Knowledge and the importance of the written and printed word are depicted everywhere. In the Jeffersonian tradition, all fields of learning (known at the time) are represented in the Main Reading Room's statuary and throughout the building's walls and ceilings. Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, presides in the Great Hall. Quotations and inscriptions about knowledge, books and learning abound, interspersed with the names of great writers and 56 printers' marks in the ceilings. Three other infusions of this theme come from the sculptured figures The Students, by Olin Levi Warner beneath the commemorative arch in the Great Hall; from John White Alexander's lunettes, The Evolution of the Book, in the Great Hall's east corridor; and from the Torch of Learning on top of the dome, marking the center and the apex of the building and what it represents.
Government and Democracy
Government and democracy also are represented in the Jefferson Building, but not as abundantly as the themes of civilization or knowledge. The principal example, Elihu Vedder's series of five paintings titled Government is centrally placed, however, just outside the entrance to the Main Reading Room. In his 1897 guide to the building, Herbert Small explains that the five panels (Government in the center, Corrupt Legislation and Anarchy on the left, Good Administration and Peace and Prosperity on the right) "represent the abstract conception of a republic as the ideal state, ideally presented." The second-story northeast pavilion, originally known as the "pavilion of the seals," is decorated with the seals of executive branch agencies of government. The disc in the ceiling shows the Great Seal of the United States surrounded by allegorical emblems. Patriotic quotations from Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Webster, Andrew Jackson and Ulysses Grant decorate the walls. Other Jefferson Building representations of government and democracy include the seals of the states of the union (as of the 1890s) in the windows above the Main Reading Room and the names of the signers of the Declaration of Independence in the stained glass ceiling panels in the second-floor south gallery.
The Library's Jeffersonian legacy (see Information Bulletin, June 1999) pervades all aspects of the institution. Of special note are the Jefferson bust in the Great Hall and the murals and quotations in the South Reading Room of the Adams Building. The other bust in the Great Hall is of George Washington. Other founding fathers to whom the Library looks are John Adams, who signed the legislation creating the Library on April 24, 1800, and for whom the 1939 Adams Building is named, and James Madison, whose official national memorial is the 1980 James Madison Building of the Library. Madison's astute quotations about knowledge, democracy, liberty and learning are inscribed at the outside entrance of the Madison Building.
A letter from Madison inscribed on the wall at the entrance to the building eloquently describes the importance of libraries in democracy:
"What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of liberty & learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual and surest support?"
Mr. Cole is director of the Center for the Book and co-chair of the Bicentennial Steering Committee.