I could hardly take it all in. For one who has spent much of my life reading, visiting the largest library in the world was just like I imagine heaven might be like. It was almost as amazing as huddling with my ipad in my sleeping bag in a stone hut at 17,000 feet in Nepal last summer, reading astronaut Scott Parazinsky’s memoir The Sky Below; A True Story of Summits, Space, and Speed. Marveling at Parazinsky’s summit of Mount Everest filled me with pure joy, wonder, and gratitude, even as we were trekking around Mount Manaslu, the eighth highest mountain in the world (26,781 feet) in the same Himalayan range.
I love books! It’s just that there are too many wonderful books to read and too little time. When I was growing up, my mother was our church’s librarian. This was during the years when our church library was the only public library in our small town. I read every children’s book we had, plus all the Hardy Boys books, which were much more exciting than the Nancy Drew series. Beginning in childhood, I kept a list of all the books I read, a practice that I unfortunately let lapse over the years when pastoral ministry became more intense.
I still wonder, however. What would my life be without books? And what would our world be without books? In December, Gary and I had the opportunity to take a tour of the Library of Congress (LOC) in Washington D.C. The statistics are mind boggling. The LOC contains more than 167 million items in 470 languages. This includes 40 million books and other print materials, 3.6 million recordings, 14 million photographs, 6 million maps, 8.1 million pieces of sheet music, and 70 million manuscripts.
The Library of Congress, which is the oldest cultural institution in the US, is not a lending library. Rather, it is located on Capitol Hill primarily to serve Congress. The Library of Congress was established in 1800 when President John Adams signed a bill declaring that Washington was the seat of the US government. Included in the legislation was the establishment of a library “of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress.”
The first collection included 740 books and three maps and was housed in the new Capitol building until invading British troops burned the building and destroyed the library in 1814. President Thomas Jefferson, who was then retired, offered his 6,487-book library to replace the original collection and was paid $23,950 by Congress. After another fire in 1851 destroyed much of the collection, Congress approved a new building for the library, which opened in 1897. It was the first public building in Washington to have electricity.
Our tour of the LOC was fascinating. Other than archiving millions of books and precious objects and serving as a global leader in preservation, the Library allows does allow public research in the Main Reading Room. It is also a venue for concerts, performances, and exhibits.
The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped is there, and the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation has a comprehensive number of motion pictures. Almost the entire LOC collection can be found on their website, and every day, thousands of virtual visitors view the digital collection. In fact, you never know what is around the corner at the Library of Congress, including an Iowa map from 1856 on display.
I love these fun facts! Check out the LOC website for more!
- The Library spends $100,000 dollars on light bulbs every single year.
- The Library buys 15,000 books a day and adds 11,000 of them to the permanent collection.
- Everything is stored on 883 miles of bookshelves.
- Almost half the books are written in languages other than English.
- Congress members drafting legislation don’t need to do the nitty-gritty research themselves: There’s a whole team of lawyers, librarians, economists, and scientists employed through the Library of Congress to do it for them.
- The Congressional Research Service is staffed with 600 analysts and supplies reports briefings, and presentations.
- The Current Librarian of Congress (they have not always been librarians by profession) is Carla Hayden, the first woman and the first African American to hold this title. She is the 14th Librarian of Congress.
- In 2010, Twitter agreed to donate every public tweet to the LOC’s archive, which amounts to several hundred million tweets a day!
- The LOC contains the world’s largest collection of comic books, with more than 100,000 issues within its walls. The oldest comic book is from 1936.
- The LOC has the largest collection of telephone directories in the entire world. Although few people in the US use an old-fashioned telephone directory anymore, the LOC adds more than 8,000 directories to its collection every year.
- The Reading Room is highlighted by marble columns and numerous statues of many famous thinkers and cultural icons throughout history.
Even though books are the focus of the LOC, the building itself is an architectural wonder. The Great Hall features numerous themes and images and is one of the most stunning pieces of cultural architecture in Washington, D.C. The Reading Room is highlighted by marble columns and statues of famous thinkers and cultural icons throughout history.
Of course, no library is complete without a Bible collection, and the LOC does not disappoint! I was fascinated by an exhibition that explores the significance of two particular Bibles, the Giant Bible of Mainz and the Gutenberg Bible. Both Bibles were produced in Mainz, Germany at around the same time, but they represent different eras. The Giant Bible of Mainz signifies the end of manuscript writing by hand, whereas the Gutenberg Bible signals the beginning of the printed book and the explosion of knowledge that the development of moveable would allow. Click here for a brief video about Bibles in the LOC.
Despite the proliferation of e-books, my bookshelves are overflowing. I love books! Even when I can only read on planes and trains and in stone huts at high altitudes. God has made you and me with a thirst for knowledge that helps us be more compassionate and informed, better equipped to become who God created us to be, and, most of all, to become sermons in stones, modeling good in everything.
“Give instruction unto those who cannot procure it for themselves.”
“Tongues in Trees, Books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”
“Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.”
(As You Like It– Act 2 – William Shakespeare)