We are in the hallowed Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress, having come through a serpentine tunnel nicknamed the “Yellow Brick Road” after its pleasant yellow walls. The hushed cool of the circular room is punctuated by distant voices, the jangle of coins, and the occasional cough or sniffle. A stream of tourists flows in and out of the Gallery on an upper floor from which I’ve seen the Main Reading Room on previous visits, wondering what it must feel like to work in such an immense, solemn atmosphere. I have been exasperated by selfie-obsessed tourists who press themselves against the glass and attempt to photograph themselves with goodness knows what. I am at peace now.
The spectacular room is the centrepiece of the Jefferson Building, which draws hordes of tourists for glimpses at its opulent interiors, exhibitions, and importantly, the Gutenberg Bible. The Library of Congress itself, while open to the public, permits loans only to government officials. Members of the public can register for researcher cards and gain access to materials and reading rooms. There are several subject-specific reading rooms, but the Main Reading Room is the sanctum sanctorum. It is impressive, strong Greek and Roman influences defining its architecture like that of the rest of the building, portraying the gravitas and old-worldly charm I have automatically come to associate with scholarship. As I look carefully, however, I realise that the room isn’t perfect: vast collections and technological aids notwithstanding, it is a product of its times in some ways.
The tasteful dome, decorated in blue and gold, depicts 1897 America’s idea of who the gatekeepers of western civilisation are; America, Egypt, Judea, Greece, Rome, Islam, the Middle Ages, Italy, Germany, Spain, England, and France make the cut. In the times of Empire, it probably wasn’t the fashion to consider the foundations laid by the Eastern Hemisphere. The statues atop the pedestals are of men who have made significant contributions to learning: Saint Paul, Herodotus, Shakespeare, Beethoven, etc. – however, this Eurocentrism neglects to acknowledge the contributions of, say, Panini or Sun Tzu.
I ask a librarian about this. He is immensely apologetic, and describes how the decoration reflects the age when the building was constructed; of the limited appreciation back then of Eastern cultures and contributions. It was also a time when women didn’t even have voting rights, not to mention representation in the public space (after all, the US is yet to elect its first female President). However, Islam was acknowledged out of respect for various reasons such as Muslims’ role as protectors of Greek knowledge, for their navigation skills, and for the influence of the Moors. He mentions that some people who notice the mention of Islam are sadly astonished. I shouldn’t be surprised, because we live in an age when calculus can be misconstrued as an evil plot written down in a foreign language. On a more positive note, the librarian assures me that if the structure of the library was being decided today, it would be done differently.
I do not let these omissions take away from my joy in the book-soaked atmosphere. The librarian has been working here for a long time, and admits to a sense of awe each time he steps in. I completely understand that. The ceiling soars gloriously high, with a soft light bringing out the tints on the stained glass windows. Spines of various colours stand out on dark wooden shelves set in alcoves with vivid pink walls. The overall effect is rich without being extravagant.
I’ve often wondered about the neoclassical influences in DC’s architecture and the omnipresence of colonnaded porches and pediments; in the Thomas Jefferson Building, the heavy Greek and Roman inspiration is evident in statues and paintings within, bearing little ostensible resemblance to everyday lives or recent discoveries and inventions. Are these structures a reflection of America’s ambitions, and was it hoped that these would be achieved by wielding knowledge as an instrument of power? Taking the underground path from the Madison Building to Jefferson, the dull metallic roar of overhead pipes and visible bunches of wires giving it an industrial, spy-novel feeling, I felt a tingle run through my spine. I was all too aware that the Capitol building was only a short walk away through another tunnel, but I wasn’t convinced that the people in it were more keen on knowledge than on realist theory to proclaim their power. I draw your attention to recent history to buttress my claims. I’m happy to be corrected and to learn about the role the Library of Congress, next door to the country’s seat of power, plays in its decisions.
I plan to return to the Main Reading Room next week and spend some time actually reading, for I must admit I was too much in awe of the occasion today to actually pay attention to the collections or my book (which, incidentally, happened to have been first published in Sussex, where I went to university for an MA degree that most people in my family assume is a “useful” MBA). The depiction of major influences of learning in the architecture isn’t perfect, but as a thing of beauty and as a repository of knowledge, it is utterly remarkable.