Probably the most famous shot of the reading room was filmed during “All the President’s Men” (1976) starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as Washington Post Reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. They’re shown sitting at one of the desks plowing through massive stacks of slips as the camera recedes up into the dome, showing the vast expanse of this circular space.
When not entertaining movie stars, the Main Reading Room serves as the heart of the Thomas Jefferson building. This historic room is, through its catalogs, the primary entrance into the Library's research collections, and the principal reading room for work in the humanities and social sciences. Every day, hundreds of books and bound periodical volumes are delivered from the stacks for use there. Even researchers who will go on to work in one of the specialized reading rooms often begin their work in the Main Reading Room in order to use the electronic resources in the Computer Catalog Center, to consult the Main Card Catalog, to obtain an orientation to the Library as a whole, or to use some of the approximately 70,000 volumes in the room’s reference collection.
When Ainsworth Rand Spofford, Librarian of Congress from 1864 to 1897, suggested a separate Library of Congress building (the collections had previously been housed in the Capitol) in 1871, he envisioned a functional structure that would also be a temple of the arts. Authorized by Congress in 1886 and completed in 1897, today’s Thomas Jefferson Building is based on the idea proposed by Spofford, including a circular, domed reading room.
An awe-inspiring site, the Main Reading Room is truly a treasure to behold. The domed ceiling stretches 160 feet above the floor. The female figure painted in the cupola by Edwin Blashfield represents human understanding, and the dozen 10-foot-high figures in the circular mural at the apex of the dome, also painted by Blashfield, represent the countries or epochs that contributed to the development of Western civilization. Stained-glass representations of the seals of 48 states (excluding Alaska and Hawaii) adorn the eight semicircular windows surrounding the reading room.
Eight giant marble columns each support a 10-foot-high allegorical female figure in plaster representing characteristic features of civilized life and thought: religion, commerce, history, art, philosophy, poetry, law and science. The 16 bronze statues set upon the balustrades of the galleries pay homage to men whose lives symbolized the thought and activity represented by the female figures. Included are Moses and St. Paul (religion); Christopher Columbus and Robert Fulton (commerce); Herodotus and Edward Gibbon (history); Michelangelo and Ludwig van Beethoven (art); Plato and Francis Bacon (philosophy); Homer and William Shakespeare (poetry); Solon and James Kent (law); and Isaac Newton and Joseph Henry (science).