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Ideas + Action

Encounter ideas that changed the world and inspired individuals to action in Thomas Jefferson’s personal library, the life of Rosa Parks, and the movement for women’s suffrage.

Thomas Jefferson Building - First Floor

Gutenberg Bible - First Floor

Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the first printing press in Western Europe to use moveable, metal, type revolutionized communication. Gutenberg was preceded by both Chinese and Korean practitioners who experimented with porcelain and wood type with metal type respectively. The action of printing spread once-rare texts, and the ideas within them, across all corners of Europe, increasing literacy and opening doors for every person who could read to access the world’s accumulated knowledge. One of the first books produced from the press, the Gutenberg Bible marks a transition from the Middle Ages to modern times.

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Great Hall - First Floor

Great Hall. View from above of zodiac on the floor, three archways, and grand staircase to left. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.; Photographer Carol M. Highsmith, 2007; Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Opened to the public in 1897, the Great Hall was designed to represent prevailing views of American industriousness, technological capabilities, and intellectual promise.

Observe the compass in the center of the floor. It reminds us that the Library is here as a guide in your search for information and ideas. Follow its eastward point to the archway with two figures representing lifelong learning. Their pursuit of knowledge echoes in the ceiling above.  Search the visual landscape for renowned writers and symbols of learning and ideas to inspire your own creative actions.

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Thomas Jefferson Building - Second Floor

Minerva Mosaic & Main Reading Room – Second Floor

Second Floor, East Corridor. Mosaic of Minerva by Elihu Vedder within central arched panel leading to the Visitor's Gallery. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. photographer Carol Highsmith, 2007, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The mosaic was designed by Elihu Vedder and crafted by artisans using ancient Roman techniques. It features Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and defensive war. With Nike, goddess of victory, by her side, Minerva holds a scroll depicting fields of study. The scroll, however, is not fully unfurled, representing the idea that we still have much to discover.

From the visitor overlook, view the stunning Main Reading Room, where researchers with a Library of Congress reader’s card can use the general collections. In the dome above, twelve large figures represent different eras or regions of the world and a late nineteenth century view of their important contributions to western civilization.The eight figures between the windows symbolize areas of knowledge. Flanking them on the balustrade below, sixteen bronze statues represent men famous whose ideas and actions contributed to each area.

Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote – Second Floor

Credit: Official Program, Woman Suffrage Procession, Washington, D.C., March 3, 1913. NAWSA Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress


Step into the story of the largest reform movement in American history. Trace personal collections of women whose struggles and triumphs combine into more than 70 years of courageous history-making. 

Credit: Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. Boston: Peter Edes for Thomas and Andrews, 1792. Susan B. Anthony Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.

You can start with the passionate writings of trailblazers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and see how they inspired Susan B. Anthony to action. Travel with the early generations of suffragists through to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Discover the ideas, strategies, and struggles of this remarkable journey to suffrage and beyond.

Thomas Jefferson’s Library – Second Floor

“There is in fact no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.” Keep Thomas Jefferson’s visionary statement in mind while browsing the library he sold to Congress in 1815.

Jefferson’s diverse interests laid the foundation for the universal nature of the Library’s future collections. Notice the scope of subjects: Botany, Geometry, Literature, Music and others. See how many different languages you can find amidst the 6,487 items.

Imagine how ideas expressed in these volumes informed Jefferson as he wrote the Declaration of Independence and picture historical actions that were prompted by their words.

Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words – Second Floor

Credit: Bob Adelman, photographer. Rosa Parks seated as an honored guest at the March on Washington, 1963. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


Rosa Parks inspired millions of people around the world with her courage, activism, and lifelong commitment to social justice and human rights. The items on display include Rosa Parks’s own journals, letters, and notes. These compose an intimate view of her life and add another dimension of understanding to of this pivotal figure in American history.

Image 27 of Rosa Parks Papers: Writings, Notes, and Statements, 1956-1998; Drafts of early writings; Autobiographical, circa 1956, undated Rosa Parks Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

The section “Early Life and Activism” shows Parks’s ideas taking shape from a young age. Read writings that detail her formative childhood encounters, and look for continuing threads of those experiences in her later documents and actions.

Quotations – Second Floor

Search the ceilings on the second floor to find quotations on knowledge, science, and art, including:

    Herbert Spencer, Essays, "The Genesis of Science," Vol. ii, 1.
    Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn
    Emerson, Essays, "The Poet"
    Tennyson, Locksley Hall, Stanza 72


The collections in these exhibitions and many more can be found on the Library’s website. As the Library’s Director of Special Collections has said, “You can find answers to anything you’re curious about here. What is your question?” Or in the words of one staff member, “As a reference librarian, the curiosity of others is what drives my day.” We hope you come back soon to use the collections to explore the questions and curiosities that drive you.

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