Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Library Of Congress

It wasn't on my list of Things I Must Do. After all, I came to library employment later in life, after years of working with computer programming. But we were planning our trip to D.C. and there, on the map, was the Library of Congress. Aha!

We visited the LOC on Day 2, after a morning at the Capitol Building. A tunnel connected the Capitol to the LOC. We thought that meant we wouldn't have to go through security again. We were mistaken. Security gates are everywhere, even for something like the Air and Space Museum. Ah well.

Nearly every major building in town offers free tours and the LOC is no exception. Our Capitol tour guide was so personable and informative that we decided to join a formal tour group at the library. This turned out to be a mistake - the guide for our group announced that he was a little hoarse, a fact sadly demonstrated once we entered the Main (and very noisy) Hall. We couldn't hear him. We looked at each other and silently agreed that we needed to politely sneak away, an act accomplished as another group passed by. We simply moved to that group, amoeba-like, until we were far enough away from the original group to break off on our own.

There really are no words to describe the wonder that is the Library of Congress Main Hall. The exterior is imposing, certainly, with all its granite and marble, its statuary, the grand staircases and arches at the entrance...but the interior is breathtaking. The public area isn't as large as one would expect, as far as floor space goes, but the Main Hall soars.

Both of us decided it would be cool to get an LOC library card and inquired about it at the information desk. We could receive a card at the Madison Building across the street. However, (and we shouldn't have been surprised, really) only people conducting serious research are allowed into the Reading Room. It's not proper to obtain a card as a souvenir.

We left the information desk. Alrighty then, what interested us? What could we research? That was easy - Ken wanted to explore documents concerning the Civil War, I was interested in Charles Lamb. Off we went to the Madison Building.

It was a simple thing to apply for the card. I went first, showing my I.D. to the Keeper of the Cards. She asked for my research subject, I answered, and she handed me an application. Ken followed but she didn't asked him for his research subject. Perhaps she just tagged him with mine. We filled out the applications, had our photos taken, and were each handed our freshly-minted Library of Congress Reader's Card.

We didn't actually use our cards that day because we needed to get back to the Capitol in time to enter the House Gallery. I went back two days later, spending most of the day there while Ken enjoyed roaming the city and taking photos. (Apparently, researching the Civil War wasn't really an urgent project for him.)

Entering the building, I felt like the new kid at school. Armed with my Reader's Card, I asked the information desk staff for directions to the Reading Room. They pointed to a wall behind them, off in the distance, and said, "Follow that yellow hallway. There are signs to direct you from there."

The hallway wound around and around, with an occasional sign that boiled down to "Keep Going." Just as I was beginning to think I'd never find it, a "Cloakroom" sign appeared. Woohoo! This was where I would leave everything but my paper and pencil. I flashed my Card (feeling like a fraud), checked my stuff, and headed once again into the hallway.

I needed to order my materials first. I went into the room where this was supposed to happen. Now what? A lovely young woman helped me get logged in and I was free to request my Charles Lamb books, a task I accomplished after a bit of trial and error. It would take 30-45 minutes for them to be retrieved and delivered to the Reading Room for me, so I explored the LOC catalog for awhile.

And then, at last, I entered The Reading Room.

I spent nearly three hours there, reading Essays of Elia. I also had a book of Essay commentaries, written by Charles Lambs' contemporaries. Why Charles Lamb? Well. Have you ever read a book because it was mentioned in another book? I'm always curious: why did the author include that book? That's why I read Mansfield Park. In That Hideous Strength, it was the book that Jane Studdock wanted to read to settle her restlessness. Essays of Elia was the book involved in the opening chapters of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I'd never heard of Essays of Elia, so I was doubly intrigued.

I learned a lot about Charles Lamb through the commentaries. I learned that the essays were published in "The London Magazine" beginning in 1820, and that Elia was Lamb's pseudonym, chosen because it was the name of a close Italian friend from childhood. I finally learned how to pronounce Elia: ell-ee-uh, emphasis on the first syllable. The essays were written as if they were from a personal journal, with a huge dose of humor. Lamb's life contained more than a proper share of tragedy - his older sister, Mary, murdered their mother and seriously wounded their father. She had sanity issues and was in and out of hospitals all of her life. Charles took care of her. He never married, although not for want of trying. Charles dealt with depression (and no wonder), and was voluntarily hospitalized for it for several weeks. And yet, despite all of that, he wrote wonderful humorous essays, observations on society and culture. His writing reminds me of David Grayson. May I quote a couple of things?

From "Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading": Much depends upon when and where you read a book. In the five or six impatient minutes before the dinner is quite ready, who would think of taking up the Faery Queen for a stop-gap, or a volume of Bishop Andrewes' sermons?... Milton almost requires a solemn service of music to be played before you enter upon him...I should not care to be caught in the serious avenues of some cathedral alone, and reading Candide...

From "Grace Before Meat": C--- holds that a man cannot have a pure mind who refuses apple dumplings... (This essay's primary theme is that Grace should be said after the meal, when the diners are less distracted by the excellent scents arising from the food on the table and therefore able to more diligently focus on the One who provided it.)

Another essay, "Popular Fallacies", lists sixteen things that are not necessarily true, with a brief comment after each one explaining why it's a fallacy. I had to write them down. Two of my favorites from the list:

#10 - That handsome is as handsome does. ("Those who use this proverb have never seen Mrs Carmody.")

#13 - That you must love me, and you must love my dog.

By the way, the Reading Room is exactly what one would expect: shelves and shelves of books reaching to the domed ceiling, gentle ambient light, old wooden carrels shaped to fit the curve of the room (and numbered, in case you want books delivered directly to you), completely hushed. The hush, however, was broken mid-morning by an explosive sneeze that echoed for several seconds. I think I'm the only one who looked up. I know I'm the only one who smiled.

I hope to go back someday.

Overheard on Twitter: Just signed up for an event called Smashputt. Waiver said "*miniature golf may kill you." Sounds like my kind of golf.

Next time: more of our trip, possibly. Stay tuned.

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