Tuesday, August 10, 2010

August 5, 2010: Washington - Library of Congress, The Shakespeare Library While Lost at Sea

I'd had the Library of Congress on my list from the outset, since I am a fan of books. But it far exceeded my expectations. The building was incredible - the sculptures in particular were beautiful and had alot of humour - they weren't just generic classical designs. There was a series of putti representing the various professions and trades in America at the time, like a little boy chasing a butterfly representing the study of entomology - really captivating to examine them all and try to decode. Our tour guide pointed out a number of features that highlighted American achievements at the time, particularly those involving the (then new) invention of electricity. Our tour guide asked us to guess which metal was used to decorate the moldings on the ceiling, which was more expensive at that time than gold - and I guessed correctly that it was aluminum. The production of aluminum required massive amounts of electricity, elevating it to a highly precious status. How I knew the answer I'm not quite sure, although I had just read that the pyramid at the top of the Washington Monument is made of aluminum, so perhaps that was the clue.

The collection is also truly impressive - books, maps, music, artifacts - the list goes on. One of the highlights is Thomas Jefferson's original donation of 6487 books, made after Congress' initial purchase was lost to the British setting fire to the capitol in the war of 1812. A good portion of his donation was also lost to fire some time later, but they are now in the process of reassembling the original collection. The books are housed in a special display of a spiraling glass-walled case (which is, in itself, a beautiful piece of cabinetry). Original books are marked with a coloured ribbon, replacement purchases with another colour of ribbon, and books yet to be replaced are represented by placeholder boxes with the author and title indicated on the spine. After making the donation Jefferson started collecting again, saying "I cannot live without books" - a quotation which makes for a particularly charming embroidered cushion in the library shop.

From the front steps of the library there's an incredible view to the Capitol Building across the way, and the open expanse of the Mall. All the better to see the thunder clouds and lightning closing in. It was eerie to be able to see the storm moving so quickly, but somehow I thought I'd be able to outrace it. I was wrong - before I'd gotten half of the way to the Folger Shakespeare Library I was running flat out. I made it there without getting too wet, and then lingered as long as possible to wait out the rain. Another family came in just after me - they didn't look like they'd been planning on visiting, but were looking for some escape. Ironically the exhibit was 'Lost at Sea: The Ocean in the English Imagination, 1550–1750' - all about the power of the elements.

Photos: exterior of the Library of Congress; interior (note the statue holding a lantern with bare bulb, showing off the use of new-fangled electricity); putti; the storm approaches from beyond the Capitol building

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