Thursday, September 24, 2015

Memory, Reason, and Inspiration

Library of Congress
During our recent trip to Washington, DC, we got to tour the Library of Congress, where I took more photos than any other place we toured. It’s beautiful, and inspiring.

We were blessed with an excellent tour guide there. I love when a guide knows so much, and enjoys sharing the details, that you just learn more than you had ever hoped. He talked a bit about the architecture. The building was designed by the same architect as the Parisian Opera House, and has the same form on the outside. One difference is that busts decorating the eaves of the opera house are musicians, and at the Library of Congress they are writers.
Bust of Benjamin Franklin
on the front of the Library of Congress

Since 9/11, entrances to almost every government building include security checks, so you can’t walk straight in through the original entrance at the Library of Congress, the way you used to be able to do. The original way was through a series of arches. The French used a combination of compression and expansion to draw people inward. The foyer is lower ceilinged, followed by arches into the Great Hall, with stairways and arches drawing you inward. The purpose is to inspire you to come in and explore.

Our guide noted that, for the sake of those who appreciate the original design, they open up the front entrance one day a year, on Columbus Day.

The interior took longer to accomplish than the outside. There were similar problems to the building of the Washington Monument. The Monument had stood half built for some twenty years, lacking funds and ways to solve foundation problems. A genius builder, Thomas Lincoln Casey, stepped in and said, “Let me do this,” and he did. He raised funds like crazy, mainly from private donations, rebuilt the foundation, and finished the project in just a few more years.

After that, those who were sitting around with a nice fa├žade of a library but no interior went to the same problem solver and said, “We have something else you could help with.” And he did. Quickly. And under budget.

There are murals, paintings, and sculptures everywhere you look in the library. He hired artists, but he told them, “You won’t get paid for your work, but you will get the copyright to anything you produce.” As a result, all of the artists died wealthy.

The library was actually started under President John Adams in 1800, with an appropriation of $5,000 from the legislature. Without a library building, the 3,000 or so books accumulated were housed in the Capitol. But in August 1814, during the War of 1812, the Capitol was burned and pillaged.

Bust of Thomas Jefferson
in the Great Hall
So the father of the library—the man who insisted that the US Congress needed a library on every conceivable area of knowledge, and not just for themselves, but for the American people—was Thomas Jefferson. By then he was retired from public life, so stepped in and donated his personal library to re-establish the Library of Congress. The deal was, they had to accept all or nothing. And it had to be arranged in exactly the order that he set up. Also, the library had to be open not just to Congress, but to all people, for free. (It still is, by the way, including all the things you can now access online.) He told them they could set the price. They settled on $23,950 for his 6,487 books, a flat rate of $3.70 per book, which was low, but still complained of by members of Congress at the time. Some things never change.

Jefferson arranged his personal library into three main sections: Memory, Reason, and Imagination. The words themselves are beautiful. Our guide said Jefferson took the organizing words from Sir Francis Bacon. Librarians insisted that the words were too inexact for their categorization, so they have become History, Science, and Arts, which are functional and helpful, but I prefer the originals. Arts, by the way, include not just literature and art, but gardening, architecture, law, and a great many other interests of Jefferson—essentially anything that could contribute truth and beauty to the world.

In 1851 there was another fire at the Capitol, caused by a chimney flue; 35,000 of the 55,000 books in the library, including two-thirds of Jefferson’s books, were destroyed. That led to the effort to give the library its own building.

The effort to replace them is still ongoing.[i] In today’s Thomas Jefferson Library section of the Library of Congress, which was reconstructed and became a display area less than 20 years ago, there are the books that were saved. Others were replaced with copies of the same editions of the same books that the library owned. Additional missing books have been replaced over time, through worldwide searches, secretly through auctions. A typical missing book, if found today, might easily cost $30,000.
Thomas Jefferson Library display
withing the Library of Congress

There are about twenty books still not replaced. Our guide suggested looking for them in your inherited libraries; finding such a valuable book for the Library would set you through retirement.

As many book owners do, Jefferson wrote notes for himself in the margins. His original books are marked with a green ribbon. Those with no ribbon are those replaced from elsewhere in the Library. They are contemporary to Jefferson’s books, but without his markings. Those with yellow ribbons are later replacements, acquired from beyond the Library, of the same book and edition. The missing books are marked with a place-keeping book-shaped box naming the title.

Warning: If you go to the Library, and have a researcher's pass, you can actually sit there and hold the books in your hand, and read them. But you will be guarded the whole time—because the librarians have learned from experience that some readers can’t use common sense. One of these valuable books was highlighted. I can’t imagine anyone doing that to any library book. But it happened. They will track you down. They won’t imprison or fine you—they will have you replace the book, whatever the cost.

For a less tactile experience, you can still read these books, learn about them, and see the digital copies of them, online at the website.

The copyright laws in the late 1800s required applicants to send two copies of each book to the Library of Congress. The Library today receives about 15,000 books a day. After paring them down, it keeps about 8,000. A day. It is the one of the largest libraries—the largest repositories of knowledge—in the world.

Mosaic of Minerva,
representing Wisdom
Jefferson, and other founders, were fans of Greek civilization, their form of government, and their art. They read, of course, in the original Greek. So they used many things from Greek mythology as symbols for the concepts they liked. The Library is well represented by Minerva, the goddess of wisdom (also known as Athena), a favorite of Jefferson. She shows up something like sixteen times in the Library.

Just up from the center hall is a mosaic of Minerva, holding a scroll listing the important areas of study.
Detail of the Minerva mosaic

Symbolism shows up everywhere, in the art especially. Murals show the results of a good, educated life, or the way we gain knowledge through all the senses. The Enlightenment and the founding fathers are well represented, as well as eagles and other symbols of the nation. Quoted words show up frequently as well.

One of the prizes of the Library is one of three copies of the original Gutenberg Bible. Our guide was a specialist on that, and we spent a good chunk of time learning things about that Bible, about Guttenberg, the printing processes he perfected, and more that I won't take space to share here today.

I already knew this, but I appreciated having the idea embodied in this extraordinarily beautiful building: civilization requires a righteous and educated people. Books are a way to access the learning of those who searched out truth before us.

[i] I found an excellent 5-minute video linked from the Library of Congress website, on the rebuilding of Jefferson’s library. [   ]

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