Tuesday, May 13, 2008

So you want to research at the Library of Congress, do you?

The Library of Congress is one of those hallowed places in academia. For a scholar, doing work there is almost a rite of passage. Few activities seem more “scholarly” than researching in rare materials underneath the great rotunda of the Jefferson building.

Hold on there, cowboy! (queue sound of phonograph needle screeching across record) Before you do that, there are some things to consider so that your trip there is as pain free as possible. The good news is that the Library of Congress is one of the world’s greatest collections of published works housed in one of Washington’s most stunning buildings. The bad news is that the Library of Congress is one of the world’s greatest collections of published works housed in one of Washington’s most stunning buildings. You see, the massive collection and sheer popularity of the structure tend to draw vast numbers of people, the very things that make the “LOC” a rather tricky critter to use.

The LOC is really two entities, one a showcase for exhibits and programs that draw thousands of visitors. The other is a research area. Going up the great steps into the great lobby are for the visitors and anyone entering will have to go through the security checkpoints to have bags checked etc. I am coming to believe that the security checkpoint should be the official Washington, D.C. symbol.

Before that fun begins, however, researchers need to go across the street to the south to the Madison Building to room 140. Fortunately, this is the most painless part of the process. You do need to register on the computer (and bring a photo id). They give you an id card with a number to use. The folks who do this are among the friendliest in DC so this is not too much of an inconvenience. By this point, you should have a sense of what you want to research (visit www.loc.gov ahead of time). Not all research areas are under the great rotunda in the Jefferson Building. Depending on your topic, you may be directed to another research area such as the Adams Building or the Madison Building. If, as was my case, your intended destination is the Jefferson Building Rotunda, you go back through a true maze of tunnels and corridors to check in your bags and head to the reading room. By the way, no cameras allowed in the great rotunda. A bit of a bummer, but I can see why.

At this point, a minor diversion into architectural history is appropriate. For centuries, really important rooms in a major public building were on what Americans generally call the 2nd floor and what much of the rest of the world calls the first floor. It was the piano nobile (noble floor) of the Renaissance. That is the case with the great reading room in the Jefferson Building. The ground level has the service corridors, restrooms, and minor reading rooms, etc. You then go “up” to the “first” floor to get to the main reading room.

Now you are ready to research. Sort of. Go to the great circular desk in the center of the rotunda and hand them a filled out call slip, blanks of which are found at various points around the desk. If you have just the right reading desk picked out, you can have materials sent there. Otherwise, you can pick them up. This is very, very much a closed stack process so staff get the materials for you. This will take about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the material. If you are really industrious, you can check out various reference materials in the alcoves -- or you can do what I did and get something to eat. It is a little bit of a hike but I recommend the cafeteria at the National Museum of the American Indian—really upscale food representing different regions of the Americas.

Assuming the materials are there when you get back, you are now ready to research. About the only issue to consider is that the reading desks are sloped and topped with glass so things have a really nasty tendency to want to slip off.

Let’s say, for grins and giggles, you want to make a photocopy. You go to Alcove 7 to the copy room. You have to purchase a copy card. This costs 40 cents but takes a dollar to start the process so do have one ready. Copies are 20 cents a piece. About the only warning I have on the copy machines is that it is really, really easy to inadvertently press the keypad to call for multiple copies when you only wanted one. Keep alert and you’ll avoid some of my costly mistakes.

Returning items is pretty straightforward—just turn them into the front desk. I didn’t need to hold items for use the next day so cannot speak to that procedure. When leaving, if you go out the front entrance of the Jefferson building, go left by the Madison Building and that takes you to the Capitol South Metro stop. Busses are also quite frequent along Independence Avenue.

Hope this helps. The LOC is a majestic location with a lot of good people and good resources. It also makes me appreciate interlibrary loan a whole lot more.


Danifesto said...

Sounds crazy! What an experience!

Anonymous said...

That's quite a bit of work to get some research done! However, it is probably worth it to see some of the amazing materials that they have.