Yesterday I got a Reader Identification Card at the Library of Congress.

I’ve lived near D.C. most of my life, and I’ve never been to the Library of Congress. I’ve done research at the British Library, the New York Public Library, the London Library, the Cambridge University library, and the Bodleian and the Sackler libraries at Oxford. All of those took a lot of travel time and trouble.

The Library of Congress, on the other hand, is two hours away. I don’t know why I’ve never been before. Maybe because Library of Congress doesn’t sound like something that working writers use. It sounds like something that senators send their researchers to so that they can make a case for their favorite bill.

But I keep running across books in my research that I want to consult, but are only available in two places–the Library of Congress and the University of Leeds. Or the University of Mysore and the Library of Congress. Or the Library of Congress and the University of Stuttgart.

I walked from my hotel to the Library on Thursday morning, passing by all the normal landmarks,


plus the protest du jour and some really specialized museum exhibits.


Apart from being way too cold (and I left my coat in the cloakroom along with my computer bag because you’re not supposed to take anything except research essentials into the reading rooms), it was perfect. The two books I particularly wanted to see were available from the Main Reading Room of the Jefferson Building, which you’re not allowed to take pictures in, but here are official pics of the reading room and its domed ceiling:

Like the NYPL and the British Library, the Library of Congress has closed stacks–you have to search for the title you want, request it, and then wait for someone to go down (or up) and retrieve it for you. Unlike the NYPL, the LoC has an online request system–you can sit at your desk, submit the request online, and wait for a staffer to deliver your book right to your seat.

Well, “deliver” is generous–it’s a great system but every time, the staffers actually dropped the books at my elbow and stalked away–I swear D.C. is the unfriendliest city I’ve ever been in. Also the little coffee room with metal chairs and dirty tables isn’t nearly as pleasant as the tea room at the British Library.

Despite that, I’m planning on going back soon and often. The Main Reading Room is a brilliant workspace. I still need to consult a score of hard-to-find books. And it’s way closer than the University of Stuttgart.

Showing 10 comments
  • Sebastian (a lady)

    I love the Library of Congress. Just sitting in the reading room makes me feel smarter and a better equiped researcher. I also like that there is a good measure of serendipity for me in finding research items that I didn’t know I needed until just that very minute.
    You’re right about the attitude of some of the staff. I think the folks in the smaller reading rooms are nicer.
    BTW, I think that it might be possible to use your researcher number to request books and have them pulled and and waiting when you arrive in the morning.

  • Sebastian (a lady)

    This in no way discounts the immediate value of a research trip to Germany. After consulting at University of Stutgart, you can take a trip over to Wittenburg. It now has a lovely museum on Martin Luther.

  • Miriam

    On the other hand…if you were to go to the University of Stuttgart library…I would know a lot of Western-European TWTM homeschoolers who would love to meet you 🙂

    The Netherlands

  • Justin

    I’ve never been to the L of C either! (hangs head)…thanks for posting the official pictures. They’re beautiful. But their no-photo regulation means that you need to master the art of the sneaky pic. A person who shall remain nameless got some lovely shots of the library at Trinity College, Dublin, even though her nervous husband kept waiting for a guard to grab us…oops, i mean, grab them.

  • Tutor

    When I was a grad student in DC, I spent maybe a tenth of my study time at home or at the GWU library. Most of my study time was split between the LoC and the NIH library. They were so quiet and conducive to getting work done. And the settings help boost my confidence that the work I was doing was important which kept me motivated. I miss living in DC and being able to hop a train and access books, media, and research treasured by an entire nation.

  • Keeley

    YAY for finding what you needed closer than Stuttgart! =)
    YAY for being able to request it from your desk.
    Bummer on the rude library staff.
    YAY on the gorgeous architecture. =)

  • Victoria Duncan

    We went on the Library of Congress tour yesterday with our family. Perhaps we saw you studying below as part of our tour? Strangely, my husband missed the tour because he was in Stuttgart. (I don’t think he was in the library!)

  • esmy

    Susan, you are always an inpiration. I have been homeschooling for 9 years: my three sons have only been home-schooled and are 13, 11, and 5, respectively. Inspite of earning a Master of Bilingual Education, I can honestly tell you I learned more from your book, “The Well-Trained Mind,” than all of my education courses. Thank you for all your contributions.

  • Barbara Hall

    Hi Susan,

    I really enjoyed visiting the LOC this summer with my 14 yo homeschooled DD. It was really neat to see this post on your blog. This daughter just informed me a couple of weeks ago that she wants to write novels as well as get a piano pedagogy (we knew about the piano but the novel-writing is a surprise). She is looking for some help and I remember reading or listening to something you wrote/taught a number of years ago about the writing process when I first started homeschooling her after reading TWTM. Did you write a paper or two about writing books? Any help jogging my memory would really be appreciated! She just asked me again today if I had found it, LOL. I think she is anxious to get started. Eeek.

  • Holly Van Houten

    Many an Eighteenth & Nineteenth c. writer learned their craft by copying essays from the Tatler and The Spectator. They would then progress to writing “in the style of ….” those essays 🙂 Looking forward to the new curriculum!

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