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The Library Reimagined, with You in Mind

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This story also appears in the July-August edition of the Library of Congress Magazine.

First-time visitors to the Library of Congress campus often ask the same question: Where do I even begin?

It’s easy to see why.

For many, it’s awe of the historic Jefferson Building that stops them. One of the most beautiful spaces in America, the Jefferson is a head-spinning whirl of murals, marble, sculpture, stained glass and soaring architecture.

For others, it’s the lure of the institution’s massive collections.

The Library holds an endless array of fascinating things, more than 175 million items that form the most comprehensive collection of human knowledge ever assembled. Together, those millions chronicle millennia of world history and culture.

Here is Abraham Lincoln’s original draft of the Gettysburg Address, neatly written on Executive Mansion letterhead. There is an ancient fragment of the “Iliad,” one of the greatest and earliest works of Western literature. The world’s first selfie. The world’s largest collection of films. The papers of 23 presidents. The map Lewis and Clark carried across the continent. A perfect copy of the Gutenberg Bible. Rosa Parks’ papers. Original Beethoven music manuscripts. That crystal flute, and on and spectacularly on.

Great Hall at the Library of Congress's Thomas Jefferson Building. Dozens of white marble columns support an arched ceiling painted deep gold.
The Great Hall in the Jefferson Building. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith.

So, where do you begin?

If you ask a librarian, the answer lies in finding more ways to connect visitors with collections and programs that match their interests.

“At the Library of Congress, we want you to make a make a personal connection, to find yourself here and explore your own history, so you can tell your own stories,” Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said. “We want to transform the visitor experience for the people who visit the Library of Congress in person and the millions more who access us online.”

Over the next few years, the Library will deliver a new experience, “A Library for You,” to bring that vision to life.

“By opening windows to our world,” Hayden said, “by sharing more of the Library’s treasures with the public and engaging children and young adults in its collections, we will greatly increase Americans’ access to knowledge.”

A sepia-toned piece of letterhead, with "Executive Mansion" across the top. Lincoln's neat, even handwriting is below, beginning with the familar, "Four score and seven years ago..."
The opening paragraph of Lincoln’s first draft of the Gettysburg Address. Manuscript Division.

The multiyear A Library for You initiative has several key elements:

  • An orientation gallery. Once the project is completed, visitors will enter the Jefferson Building through an orientation gallery located on the ground floor. There, they will discover more about the Library’s history, mission, collections and programs.

The gallery will center around one of the Library’s foundational and most significant holdings: the personal library of Thomas Jefferson. The Library at one time was located in the U.S. Capitol. During the War of 1812, the British sacked Washington, D.C., and burned the Capitol, destroying most of the volumes in the Library. Jefferson sold his books to the government in 1815 as a replacement — the foundation of the modern Library of Congress.

The gallery will showcase the art and architecture of the Jefferson Building itself, with immersive and interactive experiences that explore the magnificent space. Visitors also will have an opportunity to see behind the scenes into the original book stacks.

  • The David M. Rubenstein Treasures Gallery. This new gallery will offer visitors a window into the Library’s collections, creating a public space where visitors can see firsthand some of the fascinating and special items held by the Library in rotating, thematic exhibitions.

The inaugural installation, centered on the theme of remembrance, will include a draft of the Gettysburg Address handwritten by Lincoln, original handwritten lyrics from “The Sound of Music,” Maya Lin’s original drawings for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, original artwork by Stan Lee and Steven Ditko for the Spider-Man comic, President James Madison’s crystal flute, 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablets and more.

A working image of the new teen center.
  • An educational research studio. The Library’s new education center, called The Source, will provide children, ages 8 years and older, and their families with a space within the Library to discover how information and research can nourish curiosity, creativity and change. The space also will host teens with special programming and volunteer and internship opportunities.

Through fun hands-on activities and interactive experiences, children will explore the Library’s resources, while actually modeling the research process by finding information, analyzing primary sources and considering perspectives.

“The Source will introduce young visitors to the process of research, inviting them to practice critical skills, such as primary source analysis while allowing them to consider how research can use materials from the past to shape the future,” said Shari Werb, the director of the Library’s Center for Learning, Literacy, and Engagement. “That is what will make it unique from other spaces.”

  • The Jay I. Kislak Gallery of the Early Americas. In 2004, businessman Jay I. Kislak donated nearly 4,000 artifacts, paintings, maps, rare books and documents to the Library. This extraordinary material chronicles the history of the early Americas, from the ancient Maya to the encounters between European explorers and Indigenous peoples.

The collection spans 2000 B.C. to the 21st century. There are pre-Columbian artifacts such as a panel relief of a ballplayer from the ruined Maya city of La Corona. Manuscripts written by important figures like Queen Isabella of Castile, King Philip II of Spain and explorer Hernán Cortés. Rare manuscript letters and annotated books by Founding Fathers George Washington and Jefferson. And there are the creative endeavors of 20th-century artists, including a unique series of watercolors depicting Popol Vuh, the Maya creation myth, by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

A working image of the new Kislak gallery.

A new exhibition, “Voices of the Early Americas,” will highlight key pieces of the Kislak collection — many of them displayed for the first time through a state-of-the-art, transparent artifact wall.

  • Food, drink and a view. On the Jefferson Building mezzanine level, a new café will invite visitors to linger and admire the beautiful Great Hall and the grand views of the U.S. Capitol, located across the street.

The new features of A Library for You are scheduled to open over the next few years, beginning in spring 2024 with the Rubenstein treasures gallery, followed by the orientation gallery, café and education center.

A transformation of this scale and with a mission this vital requires a dynamic collaboration between the public and private sectors.

At this moment of great opportunity for the Library of Congress, both the U.S. Congress and the private sector have stepped forward to help ensure that the nation’s library can extend its reach and democratize access to the Library’s vast collections and resources.

“At the Library of Congress, we want you to make a personal connection, to be able to find yourself here and explore your own history, so you can tell your own stories,” Hayden said. “You can look up maps from your hometown. You can locate your grandfather’s store and use census data and genealogical resources to research your family tree.

“We are focused on expanding our collections to reflect all the people we serve and to make them easy to access because they belong to you.”


Comments (6)

  1. I hope U put much of this in that useless empty space in the middle of the Madison Bldg. There’s nothing there that is worthwhile architecturally and its a space that’s several stories high. However, the Jefferson Bldg is a work of decorative art and shouldn’t B over cluttered with exhibits that hide its beautiful walls. Perhaps one of its interior courtyards could B filled in. The Adams Bldg has space on the top floor and probably some along its perimeter.

  2. The Library Reimagined is a great opportunity from the immersive and innovation approach in most relevant themes about totality of knowledge.

  3. Amazing 🤩

  4. This history, very nice history and beautiful place

  5. The Library of Congress has several food service facilities. A cafe in the Great Hall seems superfluous, if not a diminution of the Great Hall’s dignity. I’ll have a beer and a Coke for my buddy, some nachos too, extra cheese. Instagram worthy! Is it really necessary?

  6. Can you keep us up to date concerning which existing exhibits will be unavailable as the project proceeds?

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