Friday, June 8, 2012

Breaking and Entering: the Library of Congress

Main Reading Room
Thomas Jefferson Building
Library of Congress
Today I will regale you with a true story.

A couple of years ago I traveled to Washington, D.C. for the Cherry Blossom Festival. I stayed with a roommate from college who lives in Silver Spring, Md. There were three things I wanted to do on the trip:
1. See the cherry blossoms. That was always a dream of my mom's and she never got to see them so I was going to see them for her.
2. Go to the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, and
3. Visit the Library of Congress.

My friend Marci and I started out one fine morning. To arrive in Union Station by commuter train was an adventure all its own. We hopped on one of the tour buses that circulate the city and when we got to the basin with the cherry blossoms we got off and feasted our eyes on their beauty. I remember staring for a long time thinking of my mom and hoping she could somehow see what I was seeing.

From there, we took another bus to the National Portrait Gallery. I loved looking at the faces that capture the history of our country. And of course I bought the book sold in the gift shop featuring photos of what I had seen.

After a lunch at a very clubby restaurant, we headed for the Library of Congress. Here is where things started to go awry.

First of all, it was Spring Break for many schools and as we walked up toward the entrance, we were astounded to see a long line of children. I walked right up to the guard at the door and asked if we could please be allowed to go ahead of this enormous line. As I was asking I was walking, and before the guard could turn us away we were through the turnstile. To my horror though, something in my purse set off the metal detector and this held up the line while my purse was searched. So much for flying under the radar.

Next I walked up to a nice fellow sitting at an information desk and asked how to get to the reading room. He asked if I had my Reader Identification Card. I replied, "What card?" The card that has to be applied for in advance and in person. And, in another building.


I was heartbroken. I had come all this way and would not be allowed into the great reading room?

We took the guided tour. At one point we were led onto a gallery overlooking, you guessed it, the reading room. Now I could see how it fit in to the floor plan of the building and was determined to make my way to it.

In the gift shop a clerk, when asked, told us how to go through a tunnel, get on an elevator and, lo and behold, we would be at the entrance of the reading room. We couldn't go in of course, he told us, but at least I could have a peek.

The guy didn't know me very well. When we stepped off the elevator, there was a guard sitting at a desk talking on the phone. I just smiled at him and kept on walking. We reached the door to the reading room. There was a sign-in book on a pedestal. I signed my name and walked into an anteroom filled with computer screens and people staring at those screens.

I kept moving. Marci was trailing behind me muttering that we were going to get arrested. How could they arrest us? We were citizens and taxpayers.

Through another doorway and in a second I was in the Main Reading Room, Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress.

I thrill to relive the moment.

In the center of the round room is the information desk. The domed ceiling rises 160 feet above it. Surrounding the center desk are rows of wooden desks for reading and studying. I sat down at one and looked above me.

Eight statues stare down from above representing the eight categories of knowledge: philosophy, art, history, commerce, religion, science, law, and poetry.

In addition, there are sixteen bronze statues of men representing the accomplishments in each of the categories, so we have Plato and Bacon; Michelangelo and Beethoven; Herodotus and Gibbon; Columbus and Fulton; St. Paul and Moses; Newton and Henry; Solon and Kent; and, Shakespeare and Homer.

I whipped out my notebook and made a dated entry:

Here I sit in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress.

Next to me Marci was barely breathing. I figured the worst that could happen was we would be escorted out of the room, but no one paid us any mind. I sat and stared and tried to absorb as much as I could of the atmosphere of knowledge.

When I had had my fill, and just before Marci was going to faint, I stood and calmly made my way out. I smiled at the guard at the elevator and we exited the building.

So that is my story of how I broke into the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress and lived to tell the tale to you.

Did they really think they could keep me out?

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