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A Novel Approach: The Library in Fiction

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(The following is a story written by Abby Yochelson, reference specialist in English and American Literature in the Humanities and Social Sciences Division, for the January-February 2014 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine. You can download the issue in its entirety here.) 

From murder to alien attack, the Library of Congress has provided novelists with fodder for fiction.

Margaret Truman put the nation’s library in the title of her book, “Murder at the Library of Congress” (1999). David Baldacci gave the Library of Congress increased visibility by putting its Main Reading Room on the cover of “The Collectors” (2006). These two novels are the only books in the Library of Congress online catalog rating a subject heading of “Library of Congress—fiction,” but many others have scenes set at the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution.

“Murder at the Library of Congress” follows several murders—including that of a Hispanic Division employee—connected to the pursuit of the diaries of Christopher Columbus, rumored to be housed in the Library.

The fictional Rare Book and Special Collections librarian Caleb Shaw is briefly introduced in Baldacci’s “The Camel Club” (2005), the first in a series of thrillers featuring a group of four eccentric crimesolvers. The Library’s role grows considerably in “The Collectors,” the second book in the series, which investigates the death of the head of the Rare Book Division. In the next installment, Baldacci incorporates the newly opened U.S. Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) into the plot as the tunnel connecting the CVC to the Library of Congress becomes the setting for a shoot-out in “Stone Cold” (2008).

Dan Brown’s “Lost Symbol” (2009) also makes use of the tunnel, providing protagonist Robert Langdon with an escape route from the Capitol. Brown’s description of the history of the Library of Congress and the art of the Jefferson Building is so detailed that he could be mistaken for a Library docent. In another scene, Langdon escapes from the Main Reading Room on a book-conveyor system, which would be an unprecedented use of this technology.

The Library’s labyrinthine bookstacks have stimulated novelists’ imaginations for decades. In R.B. Dominic’s “Murder, Sunny Side Up” (1968), a character observes that “there are corners in this pile where a body could lie undisturbed for months.” This time, it’s Members of Congress who are found murdered in the wake of congressional hearings on a new egg-preservation technique.

The Library affords fictional assailants with unusual murder weapons. A fire-hose nozzle in the bookstacks is used for the first murder in Francis Bonnamy’s “Dead Reckoning” (1943). A leaded weight used to hold down maps is the weapon of choice in “Murder at the Library of Congress” and an unusual fire-suppression system is employed in “The Collectors.”

Long before Hollywood produced “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” novelists saw the potential for finding clues in the pages of a book. In Ellery Queen’s story, “Mystery at the Library of Congress,” (Argosy, June 1960), researchers use the Library’s books to pass secrets. This plotline is also used in “The Collectors.” A family diary and Bible housed in the Library highlight a conspiracy stretching back centuries in Glen Scot Allen’s “The Shadow War” (2010).

Brad Meltzer’s “Inner Circle” (2011) is a political thriller that focuses on secrets hidden in the National Archives. However, the plot involves a fictional Library employee who provides information about the reading habits of a 19th-century researcher. That information would never be provided by an actual Library employee!

Fictional researchers come to the Library of Congress to find treasure maps, learn about pre- Columbian sites, examine a 19th-century Japanese diary and read espionage thrillers for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in James Grady’s “Six Days of the Condor” (1974).

Second only to murder mysteries, the genre of science fiction makes most use of the Library as a setting. Science-fiction novels run the gamut in envisioning the Library of the future from a dead depository providing useful clues to the past, a working library with 24-hour service or the ultimate electronic repository of information—either all freely available or available at great cost.

The future Library of Congress and the CIA are depicted in Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” (1992). The reader is told that at some point in history the Library merged with the Central Intelligence Agency. With all information digitized, commercialized and sent to the Central Intelligence Corporation, the words “library” and “Congress” have ceased to exist and all information from the CIC is for sale. The term “LC” is used as a measurement of data meaning information equivalent to all pages of material that had been deposited in the Library of Congress.

In contrast, Bruce Sterling’s “Heavy Weather” (1994) depicts all of the information at the Library of Congress digitized and freely available in 2031. “The Puppet Masters” (1951) by Robert Heinlein shows an America of 2007 under attack from another planet, but the Library’s comprehensive historical collections—on microfilm—provide the key to defense. Even Heinlein’s vivid imagination did not predict the world of computers and the Internet.

In reality and fiction, the Great Hall of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building is a prized venue for special events in Washington. An event in Ellen Crosby’s “The Viognier Vendetta” (2010), which marks an important donation to the Library, is set in “the beautiful Italian Renaissance-style library with its paintings, mosaics, and statuary depicting mythology, legend, and flesh-and-blood icons of poetry and literature.” In Michael Bowen’s “Corruptly Procured” (1994), a bomb provides a diversion to cover the theft of the Gutenberg Bible during a G7 summit reception held at the Library.

With its unparalleled collections and magnificent spaces, the Library of Congress is sure to be cited in works of fiction and nonfiction in the future.


Readers who come across additional references to the Library of Congress in literature are encouraged to contact Abby Yochelson at [email protected].

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