By CHARLES GOODRUM
Until 1897, the Congressional Library originally was on the same floor as the Senate and House chambers in the Capitol itself, and there, a hundred times a day, it was literally used as Congress's library. Members would rush off the floor, scoop up volumes from the Library and hurry back to use them in debate. Thus when Ainsworth Rand Spofford, who was Librarian of Congress from 1864 to 1897, began to ask for a separate building for the Congressional Library, he met with both resentment and relief from the members.
Shortly after the Civil War, in 1865, Spofford revived (and Congress reinstated) copyright deposit to expand the Library's collection. While the process had at first been welcomed as a rapid, inexpensive way of building the collections, by the 1870s, the resultant flood of volumes was beginning to overwhelm the Capitol. Spofford filled the large Library room very quickly, and then began to shelve the overflow in the Capitol attics and along the basement corridors. By mid-decade, he was putting volumes along the walls of committee rooms, down the first- and second- floor corridors and against the public staircases. In 1880 he testified that he feared a "fire may break out at any moment. ... The very dust of decomposing paper and of the friction induced by constant handling may become inflammable," and he really needed a separate building. While he agreed that walking outdoors to get books that previously had been so readily accessible would be an inconvenience (the only building on Capitol Hill at the time was the Capitol itself; the first House office building was constructed in 1908, and the first Senate office building in 1909). He assured them that he would provide magnificent facilities for the members in the new Library of Congress.
Spofford promised that the House and Senate would each have its own reading room, designed to match the finest of London men's clubs. They would become gracious venues for meeting and reflection away from the furor of congressional business. Thus, when the architects designed the new building, they concentrated first on the two promised congressional units, then followed with the great central ("Main") reading room. When the building finally opened, 25 years after Spofford had begun pleading, the early reviews were excellent, and both the press and visiting members approved.
The Senate Reading Room was set in the southwest corner of the building, with sheets of mahogany and stained-oak paneling, and it was lit by huge, golden sconces bearing clusters of light bulbs like grapes in a cornucopia -- among the earliest electric fixtures in Washington. The tables and chairs were massive, with carved claw-and-ball feet, and the chairs were covered with the finest black leather. No books showed in cases along the walls to interrupt the polished woodwork; a hidden, second-floor gallery held the working volumes. It was a very private space for the 90 senators in Congress.
The House Reading Room ran across the front of the building, twice as long as the Senate's. The decor was essentially the same, but the art work was more impressive. There were two huge fireplaces at either end with colorful mosaics across the mantels -- "History" on the south face; "Law" on the north. (The fireplaces were serviceable but never used.)
The ceiling was painted with seven allegorical murals representing seven basic colors, all done by the artist Carl Gutherz, who had founded the art department at Washington University in St. Louis. (Eighty years later, I sat beneath ''Blue -- the Light of Truth," and when I tilted back in my chair to look up, I was inspired by the Spirit of Truth, crushing the dragon of Ignorance and Falsehood, with the scene anchored by three cherubs holding a level, a plumb and a Bible. These, we were told, represented the "presence of universal law.")
A four-foot-high scarlet silk covered the walls just below the ceiling. The silk was a gift of the Japanese Embassy, and the rooms were connected to the Capitol by the newly invented telephone. The larger House Reading Room served the 357 members of the time.
The two rooms served their original purposes until World War II, but by that time the members had their own offices, and the staff of the Legislative Reference Service (later renamed the Congressional Research Service) had filled all the neighboring rooms of the Library. Library officials decided to move the CRS administrative offices into what had been the House Reading Room and use the corner Senate Reading Room as a joint "Congressional Reading Room" for both senators and representatives. This room continued to receive both members and congressional phone calls by the dozens each day, and it became the command center for all off-hours CRS services.
The Reading Room was kept open whenever either house was in session, and was staffed by a professional librarian and a messenger throughout the night. During the many 24-hour filibusters of the '60s and '70s, the staff would sleep on cots kept in the gallery book room, and hundreds of pages of filibuster text came from Library volumes carried across the plaza in the dark hours of the morning.
The larger House Reading Room was cleared to hold the department's administrators. The director got the "Law" mantel and "History" went to the deputy director. High, steel partitions were bolted at intervals through the room and painted a faux mahogany with clear glass windows throughout. They divided the room into 10 remarkably quiet cubicles, leaving an open area in the middle of the room for the dozen telephone-inquiry recorders.
One morning, I heard a piercing shriek and turned to find one of the women completely shrouded with rotting, scarlet silk that had fallen from the wall behind her. We pulled her out, but the remainder of the silk rotted and dropped in long pieces from all four sides of the room for the next three months. The deterioration was remarkably democratic. By summer everyone had been covered at least once.
In general, the administrative modifications worked reasonably well for more than a decade. The major problem was illumination. There was no overhead lighting, and the steel cubicles cast shadows.
The director's area soon filled with desks and tables and filing cabinets, so the only place he could stand with enough space in front of him to face a photographer was against the "Law" mantel looking like the "Man of Distinction" in a popular whiskey ad of the time. Many photographs were published of this scene with the words "Fraud," "Discord" and "Violence" in the mosaic above their heads clearly visible.
Mr. Goodrum, author of Treasures of the Library of Congress, was a Library employee in 1949-1979.