Updated: Apr 11
This blog post includes my personal story of how I got my Library of Congress reading card. It’s a cool story, but if you want to cut to the chase and find out what you need to do to get one, just scroll to the end of the post. It won’t hurt my feelings, but you’ll miss out on following my adventure.
If you are a writer, you will find yourself doing lots of research. The easiest way to find resources for research is to visit your library and make friends with the resident research librarian. I’ve always had a close relationship with my library, and my visits are often at least once a week. In fact, when I moved to a separate county, my library card was the first thing I applied for after changing the address on my drivers license.
However, I just recently acquired the coolest library card ever - a reader’s card from the Library of Congress. Here’s how it happened and how you can get one too.
Last week, I took a trip to Washington, DC. My favorite President and founding father is Thomas Jefferson, so top on my list of things to see was his memorial and the Library of Congress. Did you know that when the congressional library burned in the War of 1812, Thomas Jefferson completely replaced it with his private library? He had twice as many books (around 6,000) as were burned! I have always loved to read just like he did and because of that, I am largely self-educated (as he was). That is why he has “favorite” status with me.
In the Thomas Jefferson building at the Library of Congress, you walk through a beautiful large entryway decorated with high arches. Between each of them are gorgeous paintings in the style of the Renaissance. On the 2nd level sits a grand staircase to the 3rd floor which is separated off all the way across with a rope barrier except for one section that is just wide enough for one person to ascend. A guard stands there and lets 10 or so people at a time go up the stairs single file. At the top, you can peer down into the reading room behind a thick clear wall. The reading room is SO AWESOME! It’s a massive circular room with rows of curved tables surrounding the librarian station in the middle. Around the room are dozens of mini-rooms, nooks really, three stories high filled with bookshelves that surround each of them on three sides, the fourth side looking out to the middle. Each little nook is connected to the next with narrow passages behind the bookshelves and circular stairs behind that that lead to the nooks above it. Each of them are open in the center with railing around the opening so you can look down at the nook below. Or they have a high table where you can examine a book. Some have small chairs that you can sit in to read or desks that look over the edge into the main room. And the whole room is decorated in rich reds with regal antique relics on the walls and a giant clock over the entryway. Books EVERYWHERE. The bibliophile in me could not look away. I could see a few people in the room using the library, and my first thought was, “How do I get down THERE?” I assumed it was something reserved for government officials or that it involved a lengthy application process, so I casually mentioned to my son, “Okay, there’s a new thing on my bucket list. I want to get in that room.” and made a mental note to look up how to do that.
I didn’t realize that I was about to fulfill that most recent item on my bucket list. There was an exhibit of Thomas Jefferson’s books that was next on our itinerary, so we asked a guard how to get to it. Astonishingly, the guard thought we were asking about how to get to the reading room, and told us to take the elevator down to the bottom floor and go through a winding hallway where we can get into the library. “Tell them you are doing research,” he cautioned us. We were confused at first and my husband tried to clarify. “And that’s the Jefferson library?” “Yes, that’s it,” he nodded, smiling. We realized the misunderstanding as we got into the elevator and my husband and I gave each other a knowing look. We were about to get into the reading room!
Well, it certainly is a winding hallway. So winding that I can’t exactly say how to navigate it, but after another stop to get directions and a few random knocks on the endless line of doors in said hallway, we made it. We had traveled through the belly of the building and to the other side.
Outside the door to the reading room, there was a very pleasant guard who explained to us the process of entering. First we signed a registry stating our names, address, and age. Then, since we had not been there before, we had to first get a card in the media room across the hall behind us.
In order to be eligible for a reading card, you must be at least 16 years old and have your ID with you. So our sons, 13 and 15, waited outside the room as we entered the media room to get our cards. My husband and I each sat in front of a computer where we had to fill out an online form which included our name, address, date of birth, phone numbers, and email addresses. After submitting the form and having it reviewed by the lady at the stand in front of the bank of computers, she handed us a small paper card with our info and asked us to wait in a line one bookshelf away. When we got to the front of that line, we handed the paper card along with our picture ID to a professional photographer and sat in a chair for him to photograph each of us. After that, there was a few moments wait until the photographer printed each of us a license-sized plastic card with our picture and the words “Library of Congress - Reader” in the upper right corner. Also on the card is the seal of the Library of Congress, a bar code, an expiration date (it’s valid for two years), my full name and signature, and the word “verified”. This was by far the COOLEST souvenir I took home from my trip.
The guard was gracious enough to let our sons come in with us so that they weren’t just waiting outside in the hallway, so we all walked through the doors and into that beautiful room. We explored each and every little nook and climbed the spiral staircases. Looking up, we could see the observation room where I had stood before and had added this very thing to my bucket list just a half hour or so earlier. I now stood in the midst of books about every subject you can imagine. New books. Old books. Esoteric subjects and common ones. I even discovered a door between two of the little nooks that was labeled “Genealogy Room”. I opened the door and peered inside. There was a long aisle that seemed to go to a vanishing point. On either side of the aisle were rows upon rows of bookshelves filled to the brim. I felt like Alice in a bibliophile’s Wonderland. It was ABSOLUTELY AMAZING.
The Library of Congress was definitely the highlight of my trip, and the reading room was certainly bucket-list worthy. If you also want to have the coolest library card ever, here’s a summary of how.
1. Visit the Library of Congress, specifically the Thomas Jefferson building. Make sure you bring a picture ID with you.
2. Ask someone who works there to tell you how to get to the reading room. Expect to get lost at least once and have to ask again.
3. When you get to the reading room entrance, tell the guard that you are there to do research and you need a reader’s card. It doesn’t matter what your research is on. No one asked us. You will be directed as to what to do next.
That’s it! So easy!
Here are some things that you need to know before you get there:
1. There are no pictures or video allowed in the reading room. Their website, however, clarifies that you are allowed to take a picture of your research, like a page in a book, but none of the library itself. If you do plan on taking pictures of your research, I would inform the librarian ahead of time just to make sure you don’t get into a misunderstanding.
2. You must be at least 16 years old or, if your guard is really nice, be with a guardian reader 16 years or older.
3. You cannot take in a backpack or briefcase. Only a small purse, about 7x5 inches (I like this one!) and study materials (notebook, pen or pencil, etc) can be taken in. Phones are okay as long as they are on mute.
4. Like any library, you must be quiet and respectful of others who are reading, studying, researching, etc.
5. You can’t check anything out. You must read it there.
6. Your reader’s card will expire in two years.
For further information, including the complete rules, digital resources, address, etc., you can visit their website at https://www.loc.gov/rr/main/.
Do you have a Library of Congress card? Have you used it for personal research? What kind of things did you find? You can discuss this on the forum post for this article. The forum is for members, but you can join for free if you're not already one.
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