Recently, I realized I had yet to post a write-up about the Library of Congress. Which is kind of surprising given that we live just blocks away, within walking distance, and it’s one of DC’s most iconic, fascinating, beautiful attractions that makes for a great outing with kids.
We don’t visit all that frequently, but we’ve spent a decent amount of time there over the years. I used to pop in more when the kids were little to stroll around the grand space, and Sasha and I would occasionally attend story time on Fridays at the Young Readers Center. And while I’ve mentioned it here and there over the years to recommend those regular book readings and other special events for families, there’s been no KFDC dedicated post. Until now.
It was the recent announcement of new Saturday hours at the Young Readers Center that brought this to my attention. Dedicated to readers from babies to teens, visitors are welcome to explore the collection of books and enjoy both regular and occasional special programs for kids and parents. On the shelves you’ll find everything from board and picture books to early reader chapter books to middle reader series and YA novels. And while you can’t check them out of the library, guests are free to settle in there with a good read.
Within such a palatial, stately building, the space is a nice, cozy place to hang out and read with kiddos (or let older kids read on their own). Plenty of comfy seating and even stuffed animals to snuggle with are available. There are also small toys around for little ones to play with as they explore. The Young Readers Center is open Monday through Saturday 9am – 4:30pm, and hosts a free story time every Friday at 10am (space is limited to 50 people, so plan accordingly).
Don’t make that your only stop on an outing to the Library of Congress! There is so much to see and do beyond that — it’s the largest library in the world, after all. The magnificent architecture and stunning design alone will wow visitors young and old. Stand in the Great Hall and look around — you’ll see lots of other people gazing up at the ornate ceilings, reading inscriptions on walls, examining sculptures and paintings and even the beautiful floors, and just wandering around marveling at it all. There are interactives where you can get information about the significance, history, and artistry of the various features. And two very popular displays are a Giant Bible of Mainz and an original Gutenberg Bible.
From the Great Hall, you can easily access Thomas Jefferson’s Library, a reconstruction of the president’s library arranged in the same particular order he preferred. There are 2,000 volumes from his original collection, plus another 3,000 or so that match those destroyed in an 1851 fire at the Capitol. It’s a huge and impressive treasury of books!
Another must-see is the Main Reading Room, which you can’t actually enter without a special pass but can view from an overlook. The vast space has ceilings 160 feet high and at the center of its dome is a mural depicting twelve figures representing “the countries, cultures, and eras that contributed to the development of Western civilization as understood in 1897.” Be sure to also take a look around at the bronze statues representing great influences in various subjects. (This area is accessible to researchers ages 16 and up. Go here to learn more.)
The exhibit Exploring the Early Americas contains an interesting collection of rare maps, paintings, and artifacts. Show kids what explorers thought the world looked like centuries ago, and get a close look at a case of ceramic flasks and vessels sculpted with faces and symbolic designs.
There are even more exhibits downstairs that change out seasonally. Recently, paraphernalia highlighting presidents and the women’s movement were showcased. Follow the long hallway and you’ll come to the Bob Hope and American Variety exhibit and the American Folk Life Center. There is even a room of pianos dedicated to Gerswhin.
I should note that all of this is in the Thomas Jefferson Building, one of three that make up the entire Library of Congress. It’s great to explore on your own, but guided tours are also available hourly every day beginning at 10:30am until 3:30pm (2:30pm on Saturdays). You can also check the calendar for any other programs taking place.
And if you’re feeling ambitious about your day out, take the tunnel from the Library to the U.S. Capitol Building. Yes, you can follow a long underground hallway to the Capitol Visitor Center and embark on a whole new tour there!
The Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building is located on First Street SE, between Independence Avenue and East Capitol Street. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 8:30am – 4:30pm. Admission is free.