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Exploring the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building: The Carol Highsmith Photographs

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This post comes to us from Stacie Moats of the Library of Congress.

The Great Hall of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building, photographed by Carol M. Highsmith

“Wow!” “Awesome!” “Incredible!” “Amazing!”

I often overhear students use such words upon entering the historic Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Since the building first opened its doors to the public in 1897, its magnificent art and architecture have inspired millions of visitors from across the nation and around the world.

Perhaps you’d love to help your students explore this astonishing building but worry that you may never get the chance. Well, guess what? Your students may be able to more closely examine the Jefferson Building virtually than they would in person.

Onsite visitors of all ages—often overwhelmed by their surroundings or with limited time to explore them—miss many of the Jefferson Building’s fascinating artistic details and architectural elements. In contrast, online visitors can experience even the most hidden features of the Jefferson Building in an “up close and personal” way and at their own pace.

My favorite treasure trove of gorgeous images showcasing the Jefferson Building is by the distinguished American photographer Carol M. Highsmith, and can be found online in the Library’s Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. The Library’s online archive of Highsmith’s photos includes more than 2,500 digitized images and features extensive coverage of the Library’s Jefferson Building in addition to images of landmark buildings in Washington, D.C., and throughout the country.

If you’re not familiar with the Jefferson Building, you may wonder what makes it such an iconic national landmark. Decorating its interior are paintings, sculptures and other works by more than 50 American artists depicting classical traditions of learning alongside the cultural and technological achievements of the United States at the close of the nineteenth century. These depictions offer clues about the Library of Congress and its importance as our nation’s first cultural institution. They also provide insight into the values and aspirations shared by those in government responsible for this building’s creation at the close of the nineteenth century.

For example, try searching the Carol M. Highsmith photos using the term, “putti.” The resulting 25 images show marble figures of pudgy human babies, known to art historians as putti, carved into the Grand Staircase of the Great Hall. Unlike the putti more commonly found in Italian Renaissance art, these figures lack wings and represent different jobs and pursuits at the time when the Jefferson Building was built.

Figure of a little boy on the Great Hall’s south staircase, photographed by Carol M. Highsmith

Invite students to look closely at one or more of these putti images, such as the one with a spade and a rake. What do they notice? What objects accompany the putti? What jobs or hobbies might these putti represent? Students may have no difficulty identifying the gardener with his tools or the scholar wearing a mortarboard with book in hand; however, the entomologist catching a butterfly with his net and specimen box may prove a mystery!

Such observations might lead students to question the 16 occupations selected for these sculptures in the Jefferson Building. Why might someone have chosen to feature a mechanic or astronomer at the Library of Congress rather than a teacher or doctor during this time period? Who might have been responsible for such decisions? After analyzing the putti, students can:

  • Create a list of the putti, identifying their objects and related jobs or hobbies. Select a favorite and help him adapt to the 21st century by updating or adding to his “tools of the trade” and perhaps even changing his occupation to a modern equivalent.
  • Imagine they are designing a new building for the Library of Congress. What symbols, quotations or names would students use to communicate important American jobs and hobbies of our current times to visitors one hundred years from now?
  • Research a real-life American who pursued one of the putti’s occupations and whose work has contributed to the nation’s knowledge, creativity or history.

To explore more details of the Jefferson Building, take the Library’s Virtual Tour, which includes the Great Hall and Main Reading Room.

Or, encourage students to visit to launch The Thomas Jefferson Building: Secret Messages, one of several online activities for students.

How else might you use Carol M. Highsmith’s spectacular images—whether of the Jefferson Building or another landmark structure—to help students examine our nation’s artistic and architectural treasures virtually?


  1. Hello,

    Excellent post, on the library of Thomas Jefferson. I am Spanish and I really love to see this great and historic library. Despite opening its doors in 1897, for the photos, has a very good.
    As comentáis should be a majestic maze of figures and art.

    A pleasure.


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