Since 1897, the Library of Congress has been a destination for visitors from around the world who use its incomparable collections and explore its magnificent art and architecture. On the eve of the Library's implementation of a New Visitors' Experience (see story on page 203), the following article presents a glimpse into how the Library has traditionally served visitors.
By HELEN W. DALRYMPLE
On a warm summer weekday morning, visitors are lined up in front of the Library's Thomas Jefferson Building waiting for the doors to open.
Inside the building, groups of other visitors, who have arranged special early morning tours through their members of Congress, are already circulating through the Great Hall and the Visitor's Gallery, listening raptly to a Library docent describing the details of the sculptures, murals and mosaics that surround them.
The Congressional Library
Since it opened to the public on Nov. 1, 1897, visitors have been flocking to the Library of Congress building. Originally in the Capitol, the Congressional Library had long outgrown its crowded rooms there when it moved across First Street to its own building at the end of the 19th century.
The new building met with instant acclaim, and the expanded space allowed the Library of Congress to take on a new role beyond that of serving the research needs of Congress and executive branch agencies.
Amherst College librarian William I. Fletcher applauded the move into the expanded space, saying: "With the occupancy of this magnificent building" the Library of Congress should now become "the National Library," and that it was "the most noteworthy structure ever erected" for a national library.
The splendor of the building made it an instant tourist attraction. The Evening Star announced on Nov. 4, 1897, that Librarian of Congress John Russell Young had decided to open the building on Thanksgiving Day, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., "for the benefit of visitors who come here from outside and who have no other opportunity to see the finest public building at the capital." More than 4,700 visitors toured the Library that day. One visitor, Joseph E. Robinson, was carried away by the sight and wrote to Young that, "not until I stand before the judgment seat of God do I ever expect to see this building transcended."
Joseph G. Cannon, Speaker of the House of Representatives, called it the best public building in Washington, adding: "I am proud of it. My constituents are proud of it. … It is a great show building. It is our building and worth the money." Sen. Justin Morrill of Vermont echoed Cannon's sentiments, asserting that the "grandeur and felicitous finish" of the Main Reading Room and the Great Hall would "be likely to remain unrivalled in this or any other country."
Architectural critic Russell Sturgis felt it outranked "in splendor and magnificence, as well as in size, all other structures of its kind on the globe." An article in the New York Evangelist of March 31, 1898, concurred: "For examples of the finest taste and highest beauty, Americans are no longer compelled to go over seas; they can find one latest achievement on Capitol Hill and rest assured that the edifice of our new 'Congressional Library' is one of the world's noblest structures. Its treasures of beauty and its wealth of books are open to the whole people; and it is the pride of our Congress to call it the property of the nation."
Founding Documents, Concerts and Exhibitions Draw Visitors
While the beauty of the art and architecture of the Jefferson Building has always drawn visitors to the Library of Congress—perhaps more than ever since the restoration and subsequent reopening of the building in 1997—the Library undertook other measures during the 20th century to attract members of the general public and inform them about their national library.
The founding documents of the nation, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, had been in the custody of the Department of State since the new nation moved its seat of government to the District of Columbia in 1800. (The law establishing the District of Columbia also created the Library of Congress.)
Having been on display at the Patent Office from 1841 to 1876, the ink on the Declaration had faded. Therefore, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby appointed a three-man commission in 1920 to assess the preservation needs of the document. Two of the members were previous chiefs of the Library's Manuscript Division, so it is perhaps not surprising that the commission recommended that the document be preserved in a specially made glass case, and that it and other founding documents be transferred to the Library of Congress for safekeeping.
Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes took those recommendations to President Warren G. Harding, and on Sept. 29, 1921, the president directed the transfer of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence to the Library of Congress "to satisfy the laudable wish of patriotic Americans to have an opportunity to see the original fundamental documents upon which rest their independence and their government." Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam personally picked them up from the State Department, transporting them in the Model-T Ford truck that served as the Library's mail wagon.
After several years of planning and preparation, the documents went on display at the Library following a simple dedication ceremony on Feb. 28, 1924. They were encased in new containers and placed in a marble "shrine" with gold-plated bronze doors that was located on the second floor of the Great Hall facing the Capitol. The documents were soon the focus of visitors coming to the Library and proved to be a great attraction.
With the exception of the three years during World War II when they were removed to Fort Knox for safety (and periods of routine preservation), the documents remained on display in the shrine at the Library until Dec. 13, 1952, when they were transferred to the National Archives building under Marine Corps guard in accordance with the requirements of the Federal Records Act of 1950.
The marble shrine itself remained in place and was used for the display of other documents until it was surrounded by office partitions in the 1970s. It was finally removed during the renovation of the Jefferson Building, which began in the early 1980s.
Because Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish (1939-1944) recognized the value of exhibitions in attracting visitors and educating the general public about the Library's collections, he established an Exhibits Office in 1943. Its first major exhibit celebrated the bicentennial of the birth of Thomas Jefferson and opened at the Library on April 12, 1943. In his annual report for that year, MacLeish called it "perhaps the most ambitious exhibit ever mounted" at the Library.
Other exhibits followed. The juried national print exhibitions, funded by the Library's Joseph Pennell Fund, continued annually for many years, with the prize-winning prints added to the Library's permanent collections. A series of exhibitions honoring significant anniversaries in the histories of U.S. states and territories began in 1945 with the centennial celebration of the state of Florida. These were accompanied by well-illustrated catalogs and showed how the Library's book, manuscript and pictorial collections could help Americans understand their own histories—a model that is still largely followed today to help explicate varying exhibition themes.
In the more recent years of the administrations of Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin (1975-1987) and current Librarian James H. Billington, the Library's Interpretive Programs Office (formerly the Exhibits Office) develops more imaginative and more professional exhibitions that draw larger and larger crowds to the Library. Particularly popular were "Fifty Years of Animation: Building a Better Mouse" (1978), "The American Cowboy" (1983), "To Make All Laws: The Congress of the United States, 1789-1989" (1989), "1492: An Ongoing Voyage" (1992), "Scrolls from the Dead Sea" (1993), "The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention" (1999), "Thomas Jefferson" (2000, the Library's bicentennial year); "Rivers, Edens, Empires: Lewis & Clark and the Revealing of America (2003) and "Churchill and the Great Republic" (2004).
A series of cooperative exhibitions featuring treasures from other great national libraries began with "Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library and Renaissance Culture" in 1993, continued with the Bibliothèque Nationale of France (1995) and the Saxon State Library in Dresden (1996). They culminated with the Library's first permanent exhibition, "American Treasures of the Library of Congress," which opened in 1997 to coincide with the unveiling of the magnificently restored Jefferson Building. Three other permanent exhibition areas have since opened in the Jefferson Building: the George and Ira Gershwin Room, the Swann Gallery of Caricature and Cartoon (both temporarily closed due to construction) and the Bob Hope Gallery of American Entertainment.
Free public concerts have been another draw for visitors and music lovers since the inauguration of the Jefferson Building's Coolidge Auditorium on Oct. 30, 1925. The auditorium was a gift of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who also provided an endowment to commission new music. Her gift was enhanced by that of Gertrude Clarke Whittall, who contributed five Stradivarius instruments, and by the gifts of many other patrons. With performances that have included the premiere of Aaron Copland and Martha Graham's "Appalachian Spring," the Beaux Arts Trio, the Juilliard String Quartet, jazz legend Dave Brubeck and gospel great Shirley Caesar, the concerts held in the auditorium have given much joy to visitors through the years.
Jon Newsom, former chief of the Library's Music Division, wrote, "Upon the establishment of the Coolidge Foundation, the mission of an academic library was joined with that of a commissioning and performing institution so that each of their activities would stimulate and inform the other."
Although visitors had been welcome at the Library of Congress Jefferson Building since the day it opened in 1897, for the most part they were left on their own to view the building and its artworks. They could walk around the Great Hall and the exhibit halls, view the Main Reading Room from the galleries above, and for a few years get something to eat in the restaurant on the third floor, where the House of Representatives Page School is now located. But there was no organized tour program until the 1960s.
The first public tour coordinator was hired in 1965, in the person of Brian Willson, a distinguished-looking retired British army officer with a wonderful British accent and a full moustache. Willson created the job of tour coordinator from scratch, and for a generation of Library visitors and staff, he was the public face of the institution until he retired in 1987.
"I started out in Stack and Reader [Division] and then went to the Information Office [now the Public Affairs Office]," Willson said recently. "I visited the chief or the assistant chief of every division of the Library and picked their brains of everything I needed to know. Coming in cold [to the Library], I needed to, and it was a joy to do it."
Once he mastered the job himself, Willson said, he set about hiring a staff to assist him. His requirements for every applicant included a bachelor's degree and fluency in at least one foreign language.
"I always had three people on my staff," he recalled, "and during the nation's bicentennial [in 1976] I had nine people. We were doing regular tours every 20 minutes, all day!"
"Over the years I had an absolutely wonderful time," Willson said. "I met some amazing people along the way. I loved the people and I loved the job I did."
Willson recalled setting up a conference at the Library for Prince Charles, who was interested in the U.S. Constitution, with Library specialists, Supreme Court justices and university professors, and he remarked, "I had a lot of fun with that."
He also remembered meeting the Dalai Lama, who was visiting the Library with an entourage of about 15 people. "I showed him a few things, and the next time he was in Washington, about three years later, he said, 'I want to see Mr. Willson!'"
Today's Visitor Services Office (VSO), headed by Giulia Adelfio, has its roots in the work done by Willson and his staff. The office includes four full-time and two other employees, daily contractors as well as one detailee—plus a cadre of more than 200 volunteers, including docents, who give most of the tours, others who staff the Information Desks and provide research guidance to readers.
In fiscal year 2005, VSO gave more than 5,000 tours to approximately 141,000 visitors. Of these, 2,380 tours were taken by more than 74,000 members of the public—an increase of 112 percent over fiscal year 1995, when the Jefferson Building was still undergoing renovation; 1,378 tours were arranged for 34,500 congressional constituents (involving more than 90 percent of congressional offices on Capitol Hill); and 836 other special tours were arranged for 18,500 participants. All told, volunteers contributed 19,317 hours of assistance to Library visitors last year.
During the peak season in the spring,VSO conducts approximately 30 group tours each day. Public tours are given five times a day during the week, with four on Saturday. Since many visitors may turn up for a particular time slot, there may be three separate groups touring the building, led by three docents, at any one time. Briefer "highlights" tours are offered after 4 p.m. (the building closes at 5:30 p.m.) for those who do not have much time but want to learn something about the Library's art and architecture.
The Library's docents come from many different backgrounds; some are retired Library employees and teachers, while others are former lawyers, CEOs and business professionals. A few had been ambassadors. According to Adelfio, "They all have one thing in common—they are passionate about this institution and that comes through to visitors."
Adelfio added, "The docents promote the Library in a way that nobody else can. They really do a good job of making visitors understand how Congress and the Library of Congress are connected, not only through history, but now. It helps visitors to understand how Congress works and how congressional offices use the Library."
Adelfio explained that some of the docents have been volunteering ever since the program started 10 years ago, and their enthusiasm about the Library is contagious. They often come in early to use the Volunteer Resource Center to learn more about a piece of sculpture or a painting so that they can pass on those details to visitors on their tours.
"Every tour you go on with a docent is different," said Adelfio, "because they vary the tours to respond to their audience. It's like having a really good teacher in high school," she said, referring to an educator who would adapt the lesson to fit the class.
Longtime docent Bette Gordon agreed that she never tires of taking visitors on tours and explaining the Library to people who have never seen it. "It [the Library] just blows your mind," she said. "It's like reading the best book ever."
The four-month training for new docents is managed by Jim Hughes in VSO, and classes are held two days a week, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., September through December every year. This year's program starts on Sept. 5 and will conclude Dec. 7. "We show them everything," said Hughes. "The goal is to expose them to as much of the Library as possible, from housekeeping to cataloging and preservation to reference and research."
New docents are recruited in several ways: by word of mouth, notices on the Library's Web site and large mailings of 15,000 flyers to retiree groups and Washington-area zip codes early in the summer.
Since the first docent training program in September 1996, it has grown into an established curriculum that brings in Library staff members from all around the institution to talk about what they do and how it fits into the Library's overall mission. Excerpts from last year's curriculum show that one day they learned about the deacidification program that preserves deteriorating books, area studies and the Hispanic reading room; and two weeks later they heard from staff from the Copyright Office, cataloging and the Prints and Photographs Division. Often specialists will bring along "show-and-tell" items from the Library's vast collections to enhance their presentation and give the docent class a better idea of the treasures that can be found (and bragged about to visitors!) in the Library.
Hughes also brings in outside experts to talk about the art and architecture of the Jefferson Building. Last year Barbara Wolanin, curator for the Office of the Architect of the Capitol, discussed the restoration of the murals, while Tom Somma, an assistant professor of art history at Mary Washington University in Fredericksburg, Va., led a tour of the sculptures in the Jefferson Building. This year's class will also hear from experts on the Edwin Blashfield murals in the Main Reading Room and on the mosaics throughout the Jefferson Building. These talks are often attended by current docents who never tire of hearing about the beauties of the building.
The staff of VSO respond to requests for reserved tours from congressional offices and other organizations; manage the scheduling of up to 16 docents every day; schedule other volunteers to cover the Information Desks in the Jefferson and Madison buildings and the reader guidance services; arrange specialized professional visits in cooperation with other units in the Library; maintain the visitors section of the Library's Web site; and deal with other problems as they arise, from lost children to leaky plumbing. "It's a three-ring circus!" recalled Teri Sierra, former head of VSO.
Sierra said that the docents really love the training program and all of the information they receive from the Library staff. And, she added, the Jefferson Building itself "is a teaching building; you can always learn something from it. It's unique."
In addition to its unreserved public tours and tours conducted by docents, VSO also coordinates specialized visits for professional groups, organizations and visitors from other countries—nearly 2,000 people from 55 countries last year. "These tours are very individualized," said Adelfio. "We work with staff around the Library to ensure that the visitors' needs are met."
Susan Morris, assistant to the director for Acquisitions and Bibliographic Access, is one of the Library Services staff members who deals with many of the tours involving professional librarians. "That's what we're here for. It's part of what we do," said Morris.
Judging by the level of demand from congressional offices that reserve tours of the Library for their constituents through the Library's Congressional Relations Office and the comments the Visitor Services Office receives from those who have visited, the VSO staff and the volunteers are having a positive impact on those who come to the Library.
Craig Wymer wrote after a March visit: "I really connected with Laura Belman's storytelling about the art and architecture of the building. Her tour made me want to quit my job and move to D.C. to be closer to the Library. … The Lincoln Memorial was impressive, but your library is intimate, full of stories, and a warm place to visit. I plan on telling everyone that the Library of Congress is the one thing they must see when they visit D.C."
"I had a great guide, he loved the Library of Congress and made us feel like it was truly ours," wrote Thomas R. Bailey after a June visit. "The friendliness of your employees and volunteers [made the Library] the best of all the places we went to see and enjoy. … You made our day."
And from a school in Fairfax County, Va.: "The students rate this as one of the best ever field trips, primarily because they learned so much in such a short space of time from one who clearly loves teaching and does it so well!"
Visitors who do not have time for a tour of the Jefferson Building with a docent can still walk around on their own and follow the self-guided tour in the brochure that is available at the Information Desk. And the Library's Web site (www.loc.gov/jefftour/) offers a virtual tour of some of the beautiful spaces in the Jefferson Building, including the Librarian's Room and the Members of Congress Room, not normally open to members of the general public.
Returning to the beginning of this story: on a warm summer weekday morning, the first group of sleepy visitors is greeted at 8:45 a.m. by enthusiastic docent Bruce Reynolds. After he explains some of the logistics for their tour and their visit to the Library, he asks if there are any questions. Hearing no response, he asks again and then says in a cajoling tone, "This is a library; we've got answers for your questions! What are your questions?"
That wakes everyone up, and Reynolds is soon barraged with questions, for which he indeed does have answers.
For more information about visiting the Library (hours of operation, accessibility, etc.), go to www.loc.gov/loc/visit/.
Helen W. Dalrymple is a retired Library of Congress employee and the former editor of the Library of Congress Information Bulletin.