Yellow Van Travels

Visiting the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Congress needs a lot of information for the work that they do, so naturally the need to have a place to access this information. That place is the Library of Congress, and it is pretty awesome. While you are in Washington D.C. you should definitely stop by if in you are into books, or architecture, or history, or art, or just about anything you can imagine, it is a library after all.

Image of the Library of Congress Reading Room, with the words Visiting the Library of Congress

Getting to the Library of Congress

There are three buildings in the Library of Congress (they have a LOT of stuff, over 150 MILLION items). They are: the Thomas Jefferson building, the James Madison building, and the John Adams building. The one you probably care about is the Thomas Jefferson building as it is the one people normally visit, unless you are looking for a library card, then you will want the Madison building.

Regardless of which building you are going to you will want to take the metro to Capitol South (Blue, Orange, or Silver lines). This is the same station you would take to get to the Capitol building, the Supreme Court, or any of the congressional office buildings. When you exit the station simply walk North on 1st E two blocks. Cross the street to the East and you will have arrived at the Jefferson building (you passed the Madison building in the first block).

A grand staircase faces 1st E. Climb the stairs to the enter the building through the main entrance. Compared to most other sites in D.C. lines here are negligible. We happened to arrive just behind a large school group (surprise, surprise) and it still took very little time to get in. This is an airport style bag screening, so just load all you items into your bag if you have one.

If you need a wheel chair accessibly entrance it is found to the right of the stairs on the ground level. If you are visiting during winter or rainy weather a cloak room can be found on the bottom floor once you are inside. There is no cost to visit the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress rotunda

What You Will See at the Library of Congress

We only visited the Thomas Jefferson building of the Library of Congress while were there. The other buildings are mostly focused on research. If you want to do research you will need to get a Library of Congress library card to gain access to the reading rooms.

Self-Guided Tour

When you come into the Jefferson building through security you will end up near the information desk. Ask at the desk when they next tour will be. If you happen to arrive near the time a tour begins then go on the tour. Otherwise, you can get a brochure and go on a self guided tour of the building.

image of pillars and stairs inside the library of congress

The building itself is the main attraction for the non-researcher visiting the library. It is large, beautiful, and historical. The tour or brochure will take you from the rotunda around the building seeing the main aspects of it.

The archway in the Library of Congress

One of the first things you will see will be some impressive bibles, including a volume of the original Gutenberg bible.

A volume of the Gutenberg Bible at the Library of Congress

One of the most awesome sights is the main reading room. This is the room featured on the movie National Treasure.

The main reading room of the Library of Congress

Once you are on the Mezzanine level look for the large touch screen stations. These will allow you to explore more in depth the artistic features of the rotunda area. It will explain the symbolism of each piece, and help you know what is what better than the brochure.


The Library of Congress has vast holdings, and in the Jefferson building they trot out some of their best stuff for the public to see in exhibits. If you have time you may want to visit the exhibits, which are located on the sides of the ground and Mezzanine levels. The exhibit that we looked at was on World War I and was interesting, but very wordy.

The one exhibit that you absolutely must see is the Thomas Jefferson Library. You will need to go through the exhibit gallery of the South end of the Mezzanine to get there.

Quote from Thomas Jefferson, I cannot live without books"

After the original Library of Congress burned during the War of 1812 Thomas Jefferson sold his personal library to the government to be the beginning of the new one. This exhibit is that original library. If you get a little flyer at the entrance to the exhibit it will explain to you which books are original, which are replacements, and which are missing.

Sum Up

The Library of Congress is really cool and really easy to visit. You should definitely put it on your list of things to do while in D.C. Depending on how many exhibits you want to see you should plan 1 – 2 hours for your visit. Be aware when you leave the Library of Congress you will undergo another bag inspection. I guess this is so nothing from the collections walks out the door.

You exit out of the ground level doors. The ground level is also where the bathrooms are.