By GAIL FINEBERG
People by the thousands, many of them first-time visitors, came to experience their national Library on Saturday, April 12.
“Ooooh,” they said, and “Aaahhh,” as they stepped through the great bronze doors into the marble splendor of the Great Hall. They watched, mesmerized, as the Library’s story unfolded on huge video screens flanking the entryway.
Allowed into the Main Reading Room, visitors crooked their necks to peer up at the rotunda ceiling painting of Human Understanding floating 160 feet above the Main Reading Room desk. They posed for pictures high on the center desk.
In the exhibitions, visitors experimented with new digital technologies to explore old treasures that tell the country’s creation story, from before the time of Columbus through the 19th century. At a mezzanine kiosk, they examined architectural details in blowups of gorgeous digital photographs provided by photographer
Carol M. Highsmith. (See Information Bulletin, December 2007.)
“The technology is really cool. The quality of the images is pretty phenomenal. I don’t know a lot of libraries that have this kind of technology,” said Julie Webb, visiting with her two daughters from Carmel, Ind.
Many were moved by the experience. One giant of a man, middle-aged, stood leaning against a marble pillar at the side of the great Hall, absorbing the soaring white marble staircases and columns, the intricate carvings and colorful paintings, all bathed in light. Tears coursed down his cheeks. “I can’t believe that all this is the work of man,” he told a docent.
Welcoming the visitors to “the world’s greatest storehouse of knowledge,” Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said: “This is all here for you, and it’s free.”
In his opening remarks from a sheltered stage on the plaza of the Thomas Jefferson Building, the Librarian said he hoped visitors would remember April 12 as “a great day of fun, celebration and discovery.”
“For this is genuinely the start of something big,” he said, explaining that the Library and its collections were available not just to those who came in person to see them but also “to everyone in the world,” who from their computers would be able to “turn pages” of the Gutenberg Bible or examine Ben Franklin’s edits of the Declaration of Independence by way of a new Web presentation, myLOC.gov, a portal to the Library of Congress Experience.
“Dr. Billington’s vision of creating a digital Alexandria … has come to fruition,” said Mickey Hart, a member of the American Folklife Center Board of Trustees and the National Recording Preservation Board and former percussionist with the Grateful Dead, who opened an afternoon ceremony to present eight Living Legend awards.
Speakers throughout the day noted the relationship of the Library to the institution housed in the Capitol across the street. In one of its first official acts, Congress passed legislation in 1800 to establish and finance its own Library of Congress. Congress replaced its library after two fires — one set by the British in 1814 during their wartime invasion of Washington and another started by a faulty chimney flue in 1851 — and sustained and supported it every year thereafter. As Billington has noted often, the U.S. Congress has been “the greatest patron of the greatest library anywhere in the world.”
Two members of Congress were on hand with their families — Reps. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., and Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. “This really is the nation’s treasure,” McCarthy said at the beginning of the morning program. “You are going to walk through doors that are being reopened for the first time since 1990. You are going to see two great Bibles, one that replaced the oral tradition and the other that represents the printed tradition. You are going to see Thomas Jefferson’s library for the first time since it has been reconstituted.”
Using new technology, he continued, “We can apply the treasures of the past to the future. We’re going to open up the Library to the world.”
Upon receiving a Living Legend Award, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough said: “I saw yesterday an exhibition, which every American ought to see, ‘Creating the United States.’ If visitors to this, our capital city, whether they’re from our own country or from abroad, were to see only one exhibition, one building, one place during their visit, ‘Creating the United States’ would be the one to see, here at the Library of Congress.”
“The power of this institution is not just in the collections, but in the staff,” he added. He asked Gerry W. Gawalt, curator of “Creating the United States,” to take a bow from the top of the west front steps, where people cheered and clapped.
Staff watching the debut of a new HISTORY channel video, which with other videos is being shown for visitor orientation, commented that these productions feature not “just the stuff” but also the staff—curators, reference librarians, catalogers, preservationists, mail processors, deck hands—all talking with great enthusiasm about the knowledge and wonders contained in the collections.
Billington said later the thing he likes most about the new technology used in the Library of Congress Experience is its effect on the Library’s curators. “They have so much more than just knowledge of the collections. They have a passion and enthusiasm that they can now express to a much broader audience [with the use of technology]. When they get going, they aren’t just expounding on what they know about something, but what it means. This chain of enthusiasm is the basis of education.”
Spirits Soar Inside and Out
While dark clouds scudded overhead, dropping a morning shower or two and making event planners nervous, the day’s festivities began promptly on the plaza at 11 a.m. A Library of Congress Chorale octet sang the first and the rarely heard second verse of “The Star Spangled Banner.” (The Music Division holds the first book publication of the anthem, in Francis Scott Key’s “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” printed in Hagerstown, Md., in 1814.)
After his opening remarks, the Librarian led a small group of dignitaries up the west front steps to open the front doors to the Great Hall as the Montgomery College Wind Ensemble of Rockville, Md., conducted by Steven Czarkowski, played the “Library of Congress March.” (Music specialist Loras Schissel found this unfinished, untitled manuscript sketch in the Library’s John Philip Sousa Collection and supervised its arrangement by Stephen Bulla for its premiere performance at the Library in 2003. A new Web site devoted to Sousa is accessible online).
Furling and unfurling large colorful umbrellas with the passing of April showers, visitors of all ages waited patiently in long lines to ascend the west-facing steps of the Thomas Jefferson Building and move through security checkpoints operated by cheerful officers. “Welcome to the Library of Congress,” one officer said to each new visitor.
A shower that aspired, briefly, to be a downpour drove visitors to shelter in the Carriageway below the plaza, leaving three poets, Grace Cavalieri, Ethelbert Miller and Dan Logan, to read their poems to a small, wet and determined group of listeners.
Doc Scantlin — dapper in a morning suit and spats — and his Imperial Palms Orchestra were feeling their oats. They played Big Band oldies with verve while the orchestra’s blonde singer, Chou Chou, warbled and vamped in a sparkly gold lamé gown.
While these entertainments amused visitors on the plaza, an estimated 5,500 guests experienced the day’s main attraction — the public spaces of the Library of Congress.
Gail Fineberg is the editor of The Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter.