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A New Vision for an Inspiring Location

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Artist's rendering of an installation of a window in the ceiling looking up to a round dome
Artist’s rendering of the future oculus – a circular glass window that will allow visitors to look up to the dome of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building from a new orientation center.

The first time I stepped onto the floor of the Library of Congress’ Main Reading Room and looked up at the soaring, picturesque dome, I was overcome with a sense of wonder and gratitude for the opportunity to experience the inspiration that this iconic American space provides.

Because the Main Reading Room continues to serve as a working space for researchers, I had an opportunity to experience this majestic dome that many of the 2 million yearly visitors to the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building cannot have … yet.

One of the many features in the Library’s comprehensive Visitor Experience Master Plan will offer every visitor is the opportunity to gaze up at that dome — a painting that represents Human Understanding in the act of lifting the veil of ignorance and looking forward to intellectual progress.

A rendering of the new orientation center. The oculus, in the center of the room, will allow visitors to see the ceiling of the Main Reading Room.

The Library will accomplish this, while also preserving the quiet character and intended function of the Main Reading Room, by installing an oculus – a circular glass window that will allow all visitors to see the dome from a new orientation center below the Main Reading Room. It’s where visitors will begin their Library journey.

For the researcher seeking insight, information and inspiration in the Main Reading Room, the experience will change very little. Librarians will be available to assist researchers. Staff will still deliver and distribute books and other research materials for use there. Access to digital resources will continue. The circular desk at the center of the room will remain. Only the cabinet enclosing a central staircase and book elevator at the center of the room, which has been modified and updated several times since 1897, will be removed to make way for the oculus. In most areas of the Main Reading Room, the oculus will be invisible, since it will be inside the perimeter of the circular desk.

Meanwhile, the new orientation center will occupy the space previously used as the control room. The historic functions of the control room, where books arrived for delivery to the Main Reading Room via the book elevator (which replaced the original dumbwaiter), have evolved many times since 1897 when the Library opened.

Today, the delivery of materials no longer requires a central control room. Repurposing that space will provide visitors with an educational and inspiring orientation to the Library’s vast resources, as well as a stunning view of the Main Reading Room’s dome.

A new learning center is part of the renovation project.

These are just a few of the exciting elements of the Library’s Visitor Experience Master Plan, which also includes a new Treasures Gallery and a learning center that will offer families, teens and school groups with opportunities to engage with Library collections through innovative interactive experiences.

All of these new experiences are possible thanks to generous investments from Congress and from generous private sector donations. David Rubenstein, the chairman of the Library’s James Madison Council and co-executive chairman of The Carlyle Group, has pledged $10 million to support the visitor experience project, and other private sector donors will also support it. Congress has expressed enthusiastic support and has appropriated $40 million to fund it.

The planning, design and construction of a project of this scope is significant. If current efforts remain on track, we look forward to welcoming our first visitors to experience some of the new elements included in the Visitor Engagement Master Plan in 2023 when the Treasures Gallery opens.

The Library seeks to democratize access. We want to share the art and architecture of one of Washington’s most grand and beautiful rooms with the many, not the few. This is a public treasure funded by the American people — and more people should experience the wonder of their national library.

The Library’s mission is to engage, inspire and inform Congress and the American people – researchers and visitors alike – with a universal and enduring source of knowledge and creativity. The Visitor Experience Master Plan represents a visionary pathway to engage more Americans than ever in their Library, the Library of Congress.

A new gallery of the Library’s treasures will allow more visitors to see more of the Library’s most important holdings.

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Comments (39)

  1. Beautiful; I look forward to seeing

  2. Looks good, but it seems to me that it costs an awful lot of money, at a time when according to the Librarian of Congress “To mitigate inflation, the Library weighs a range of measures in every budget cycle, including slowdowns in hiring and programs and delays in some contracts.” Gazette Volume 33, No. 26 July 01, 2022, page 7.

    In my opinion the slowdown in hiring has been most visible in cataloging, though not only there. The library has an amazing backlog of materials that need to be cataloged. Now that we learned about plans to improve the experience of tourists, can we please learn about plans to help researchers better find what they are looking for in the library’s collections?
    Thank you!

  3. This is an abomination and a desecration of what is perhaps the most beautiful architectural space in the United States. We don’t need more Disneyfication. Besides, tourists already can and do enter the Main Reading Room. The library needs to invest more in its core mission which is serving the researchers and scholars who need access to its collections. Spend money on keeping the library adequately staffed and cataloging the millions of items in its arrearage, not on frivolous and unnecessary baubles.

  4. I love the idea of everyone learning about the Library of Congress and its wonderful collections + history. And you are already doing this with tours, exhibits, and events. Please do not cut a hole in the MRR floor — the splashy addition of an oculus is NOT going to bring more tourists! Keep up your advertising + promotion (article in this week’s Parade!). And spend the $ on digitizing collections and reaching out to other libraries.

  5. This seems like just another sop to the selfie crowd who won’t care about the dome but care about pictures of themselves looking at the dome. Cheesy and despicable.

  6. Please just Don’t. Haven’t enough of our beautiful and historical buildings been ravaged by technical appliances?

  7. Say it ain’t so! No need for this, as pointed out above by many others. Please don’t do it.

  8. Wow! This would be considered ugly even in a suburban strip mall. This is going in one of the most beautiful buildings in the U.S.? The LOC really has lowered its standards and sunk to a new low. This is a really bad student project that might get built.

  9. Tens of thousands of researchers use the Library of Congress reading rooms every year. A couple of million visit it every year as tourists. Hundreds of millions visit the website every year. This is a library for the entire nation and the world, not just researchers. The oculus will have minimal or no effect on the researchers in the Main Reading Room — they won’t even be able to see it – and will open up this temple of learning for more people to appreciate. Tourism is a gateway to use!

  10. All of these pics show the Orientation Center, not what the Main Reading Room will look like. Taking out the historic desk from the Reading Room will degrade the experience. Just stop.

  11. It is nice that you allow comments, but I have a sinking feeling that whoever decided to spend $60,000,000 on the oculus doesn’t care what anyone thinks about it. And wouldn’t care if they learned that 99% of the librarians who actually work in the library don’t support it. Please prove me wrong. Surprise us all and show that you care about what librarians think best serves researchers.

  12. Tourism is a gateway to use – okay, fair – but you don’t have to bulldoze parts of buildings that are literally historic. The oculus is getting bad press (see today’s Washington Post). There are SO many better ways to improve the visitor experience. Here’s an example. Within the last couple of years, the library added floor markers and signs to point visitors on the way to getting a reader registration card in the Jefferson Building. Before that, you had to guess how to navigate the labyrinth. Designing and printing those signs did not require $40 million. Besides, people can visit the dome in the main reading room TODAY, at this moment. All you need is the reader card and good behavior while taking your selfies. How about putting the security entrance, the cloak room, and the reader registration room within 20 feet of one another? Do that instead of chasing media headlines.

  13. How is enabling people to view the dome through a window in the basement ceiling going to draw or serve visitors? Sure, it’s pretty – but it becomes absolutely awesome when experienced in the context of its physical setting. Only by actually visiting the Main Reading Room itself – complete with its central desk and tower – can the dome and the entire majestic space be fully comprehended.

    This proposal would fundamentally alter the very character of the Main Reading Room, not to mention its operations for both employees and patrons. To what end? For a gimmick?

    Increase public access to the fabulous Main Reading Room, sure. If you must, let people troop through in their legions for 10 minutes every other hour or something, and then let them admire the MRR and dome from the viewing gallery.

    There are far better ways to attract visitors and serve the public than this.

  14. What this “New Vision” overlooks is that there are specific laws and regulations in place regarding historic architectural preservation, and that the Librarian is simply ignoring them. First, the full Congress—not a mere oversight committee—has already expressed its wishes by twice denying, in statutory and codified law, to the Librarian any authority over architectural matters (42 Stat 715 [1922]; 2 USC, Chapter 5, §141 [February 20, 2003; P.L. 108-7]). Second, the plan to remove the Desk and ‘renovate’ the Control Room directly below it is itself in direct violation of a score of legal regulations concerning historic architectural preservation (cf. the Architect of the Capitol’s Order 37-1 “Preservation Policy and Standards” [Regulations and Definitions 1, 3, 5, 7, 8.3; 8.5; 8.13; 8.15; 8.17, 8.21; 8.24, 8.25; 9.1; 9.2; 9.5; 9.5.2; 9.5.4, 9.5.6, 10.1;; 11.2; 11.3; 1l.6; 11.8; 11.12; 11.13]). Third, there are many more ways to get tourists into the building that will not cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. (Unfortunately, the plans already put in place have prioritized tourists over researchers: the size of both the African/Middle East Division reading room and the American Folklife Center reading room have now been greatly diminished in order to provide more space for museum-type display cases and exhibits; and the Main Reading Room itself has now been closed to researchers on Thursday nights [!] so that tourists can come in, instead.)

  15. What a horrible idea and mismanagement of tax payers money!!! Totally agree with those who are outraged by this proposal. People actually do want to see the most beautiful historical library in the US in action. Otherwise what message are we sending to our young? Just stop it.

  16. Sacrificing the unique, historic circulation desk for a
    distant view of Blashfield’s mural “Human Understanding”
    about 195 feet above the floor of the main reading room
    is a bad bargain. The mural will be barely visible from
    that distance. This is especially true when you consider the soft, pale pastels used by Blashfield in his mural.

  17. This is a horrible idea. Why would the Library destroy such gorgeous architectural piece??? Can we please spend money and effort on hiring people and filling positions that were vacated by retirees? Have the Library management seen the backlog of materials that need to be cataloged? Under staffed offices? Let’s focus on that before we spent millions on a entertaining room for tourists. They have plenty to admire at the Jefferson building. Is this idea coming from the same person who thought the we need to repeat the Library Library of Congress making us look unprofessional? We are the laughing stock of the librarians’ community.

  18. LC staff members are insulted by this project. Instead of investing money in hiring the workforce we need to sustain our acquisitions and move the hundreds of thousands of unprocessed items out of the backlogs so patrons can access them, we’re spending an obscene amount of money on a vanity project. Let visitors continue to come in and admire the beautiful building as they always have, but don’t lose sight of the Library’s mission of supporting research and learning. After all, we could offer more than just a pretty dome, if our priorities were straight.

  19. What a horrible horrible idea! 40 MILLION U.S.TAXPAYER DOLLARS to fund this loony idea?

  20. $60,000,000 is a massive sum to spend to make the Main Reading Room more ‘viewable’ by installing an oculus. Instead, this amount should be used to make the collections of the Library of Congress more ‘discoverable’ by cataloging the backlog of library materials and hiring adequate staff to do this task.

  21. I agree with what so many have already said, this is a horrible idea. Why can’t that money go towards hiring very much needed staff and upgrading work spaces, along with replacing or repairing the carpeting in the Main Reading Room. It is unbelievable that the carpeting is literally coming up from the floor right as you walk in. How did the tourists become first and foremost? What about the researchers and the staff, those tourists should not be top priority, if they are going to come, they will and not by spending $60,000,000 in the way that’s been presented. Very sad…

  22. Imagine if the Vatican did this to the Sistine Chapel.

  23. Are you kidding? This move will rip the very soul out of this treasure institution.

  24. The Library is for everyone, not just researchers! This will have minimal impact on the way that the room looks (particularly since it’s just the tower and not the full desk). The oculus will be practically invisible to researchers and the public. There is so much good that’s happening in this project, and so much that will make the Library’s collections and services visible and accessible to our visiting public. Once visitors learn about our resources, they are more likely to use our many services and collections online and in-person.

  25. No, no, a thousand times no! This is destruction of something historic and significant. Stop!

  26. The Reading Room is for readers, not gawkers–who do not need another selfie on their smartphones. The Library of Congress is paid for by. all the taxpayers–not just those who need another tourist attraction. A “dedicated building” has its purpose defaced by this pandering to this totally unidentified mass!! Do a survey of D.C. tourists and see for how many a visit to see Jefferson’s dome is featured on their to-do lists. Someone’s pocket is being lined by this grotesque parody of tourism.

  27. Reading all the comments so far has been very informative. It is SO MUCH MONEY! This library is beautiful just the way it is and would be so much better to use the money as a way to expand the Library’s reach out to the public. There are still very many people who have never heard of the LOC! Please, please leave this treasured home of knowledge alone!
    Thank you.

  28. Do not mistake colonialist impulse for democratization. Entering a space uninvited to say ‘We want this for us. We want this so we can let tourists come by,’ looks a lot more like one than the other. Right now ANYONE can visit the Reading Room and see the dome and the artwork, the desks with their lamps, and the research materials that bring their work and life meaning. A hole in the floor does not bring them closer to a connection with the institution.

  29. Stop the madness help Library Committee stop this demolition of a magnificent piece of history of the Capitol campus.
    The tourists will not understand what was destroyed in order for them to get a view of the ceiling which they can get now from The Gallery…..stop this

  30. Thia is a horrible idea

  31. Pretentious project that does Not mesh with the Jefferson building’s Beaux Arts aesthetic. Utter waste of taxpayer money.

  32. I agree with the earlier comments that this is not a good use of funding. There is already a good view of the dome from the library floor and balcony. The desk is functional. As long as visitors are respectful, there is no worry of disturbing researchers. I don’t see how a hole in the floor will encourage more tourists. Please spend that money on improving resources, hiring more staff, or maintaining existing infrastructure and collections. Or provide this money to other causes for citizens’ benefits in DC. Tearing apart a historic building is not a good choice!

  33. This is such a terrible idea. Americans always rave about European cities with their buildings preserved for centuries, yet destroy or desecrate our own. I agree so much with comment #5 that it will just be a way for tourists to take more selfies.

  34. Other staffers have already commented on our very legitimate staffing and cataloging needs. It’s also worth pointing out that there are many types of people who will absolutely never feel comfortable being in a space like the Jefferson Reading Room. Let’s not pretend that academia has always been a democratic or meritocratic institution when it has always been exclusive and elitist. Destroying historic architecture will not rewrite the past or make it any easier for people traditionally excluded from this world to visit in the future. This plan will create a literal glass ceiling with regular folks looking up from beneath at the world of the academic and social elite. If LoC really wants to make itself available to everyone, start with cataloging and digitizing our collections and make them available online to everyone for free and hire the staff (not contractors) necessary to do that. That is the way to democratize this institution and a far better use of funding. Spending tens of millions of dollars on a hole in the floor so influencers can take selfies is not the kind of “investment” that is needed at this institution or in this country.

  35. There is actually a proposal to cut a hole in the floor of an iconic, historic building in the heart of our nation’s capital? Even if we ignore the absurdity of this, how is it okay to ignore all the regulations and laws regarding historic architectural preservation? (see comment #14 by Thomas Mann.)
    Having visited the Jefferson Library, I have to say that it is lovely to be able to view both the reading room (from above) and part of the dome from the viewing gallery/balcony. The lasting impression is not just the dome, it is the room in its entirety. The painting near the top of the dome, to use the phrase in this blog, “represents Human Understanding in the act of lifting the veil of ignorance and looking forward to intellectual progress”. Given the issues regarding this idea, that description seems more than a little ironic.
    In viewing the painting from a story below the reading room, which itself is 4 stories below the dome, any detailing will be too far away to appreciate. I’m sure this idea might have generated some “oohs” when it was first aired, but now that everyone has had time to think about it and to contemplate both the illegalities as well as the impracticalities and absurdities, surely some of those involved in this decision are having second thoughts. It’s sad to see more heel digging from decision makers even with all the public attention and constructive feedback.

  36. This is a project for the people? I wonder – how many of those people were consulted in advance? Did senior management ask enough staff for their opinion? This sounds like something that was decided in a vacuum at some high level meeting. From the sound of the comments and feedback I’ve seen so far, there was no reality check in any other direction.

  37. please do not do this to the LOC. It is idiotic and frankly i think is architectural vandalism. We need to keep the LOC as a place for researchers to do their job. We don’t need this to obtain visitors/tourists. NO NO NO! horrible idea and it will ruin this space.

  38. The main reading room of the Library of Congress is one of the beautiful venues in our entire country. It is warm, relaxing and conducive to study and contemplation. Your plan is ugly and uninviting. Please do not turn this historical setting into another boilerplate motel lobby.

  39. Architectural vandalism is right! Do read all these comments listed above and open your ears. An incredible waste of money for a ridiculous desecration scheme. Who enters the Main Reading Room just to look at the dome???!!!

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