Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Library of Congress - Politics with No Crowds

"All is Politics in this Capitol"
Thomas Jefferson

As much as we love the Smithsonian museums and the Phillips Collection, we feel visitors to Washington DC would be missing a trick if they came to town and did not pay a visit to the Capitol, a working legislative body and one of the most recognized monuments in the world. Here’s the problem with that idea. Tickets. According to the U.S. Capitol Guide Service website:

“Tickets are distributed each morning beginning at 9:00 AM … Tickets are required for all tours of the Capitol. … personnel distribute the tickets on a first come, first serve basis … Tickets … are for the same day admission only …During the busy months of Spring and Summer, the line for tickets forms quite early in the morning, so please plan accordingly.”

When NoCrowds reads something like that, we run for the hills but we are happy to report that on our last visit to Washington, we did find in the Library of Congress an easier way to get the Capitol Hill experience without a ticket and with far fewer crowds.

The Library of Congress, housed in three buildings directly east of the Capitol, serves as the research arm of Congress. It is America’s oldest cultural institution and with 138 million objects stored on 650 miles of shelves, it is the largest library in the world. Being a research library, most of the books and objects are kept secure in closed stacks but are available to anyone over the age of 18 who wishes to conduct research.

All the action for visitors to the Library can be found in the glitzy, spectacular Jefferson Building which has more gold, marble, mosaics and statues than any government building we’ve ever seen. During our visit, we were able to wander through several exhibitions including “Creating the United States” which looks at the ideas, collaboration and compromise involved in drafting America’s founding documents and “Exploring the Early Americas” about encounters between native Americans and Europeans. There is an inspiring exhibition on Thomas Jefferson and a recreation of the Library he sold to Congress in 1815. Popular culture is well represented in the Bob Hope exhibition on American entertainment. A lot of effort has gone into making these exhibitions interactive, so they are ideal for younger audiences.

Free guided tours lasting about 45 minutes and requiring no advance reservations are offered at 10:30, 11:30, 1:30, 2:30 and 3:30 (but no 3:30 tour on Saturdays). If tours aren’t your thing you can take yourself around the building. There is Discovery Guide for children and a gift shop for the “If you behave yourself, I’ll buy you a treat” routine.

So what’s the verdict on the Library of Congress? A visit is an excellent way to get a Washington political fix without getting on a tourist hamster wheel. The pomp and circumstance of the Library speaks volumes about political life in the nation’s capitol. The exhibits do a good job of presenting America’s view of itself and the world. You can pop in or linger as you like. If you are like us, you will leave thinking that regardless of one's view of the US government, it sure does know how to organise a great library.

The Library of Congress
Jefferson Building – The Library of Congress Experience
1st Street SE (between Independence Avenue and East Capitol Street)
Tel: 202 707 8000

Hours – Monday through Saturday 10 am to 5pm
Closed Sunday and federal holidays
Photography by Carol M. Highsmith from the Library of Congress website

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