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.
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.
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.
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