Library of Congress, Washington, DC
by Laurence Burke
Carnegie Mellon University

The Library of Congress in Washington, DC, was created to support research needed by Congress. As such, it holds a massive collection of books, newspapers, and magazines.  It also holds an impressive amount of archival material in a variety of different collections.

The Library of Congress is housed in three buildings: Jefferson, Adams, and Madison. Jefferson is the oldest building, directly east of the Capitol Building. It’s the fancy one with the elaborate domed reading room that everyone sees on the tour. In addition to this main reading room, where you can peruse the library’s collection of printed books, Jefferson also houses reading rooms for various archival collections, such as Asian, European, Hispanic, and the Microform collections. The Adams building is directly east of Jefferson, and is the site of the Business and Science & Technology reading rooms. The Madison building is south of Jefferson and contains the Geography & Map, Motion Picture & Television, Performing Arts & Music, Newspaper & Current Periodical, Prints & Photographs, and Manuscript collections as well as the Law Library.  The process of research in each of these collections is broadly similar, but each will have its own peculiarities. In this write-up, I will concentrate on using the Manuscript Reading Room in Madison, as the military history graduate student will likely spend a lot of time (or at least start) here. The manuscript archivists at the library have compiled the personal papers of a great many important military figures as well as the personal papers of a number of US Presidents from George Washington to Woodrow Wilson. However, be aware that the official records of Congress itself are held in the National Archives.

As with any archive, your first step in planning a trip is to identify collections you want to research at the site. For the LC, this means the main online catalog: searches will cover not just printed volumes, but all of the special collections as well. In your results, be sure to note the type of material as well as the “request in” information. The specific result for archival manuscripts may also include a link to an online finding aid, but not every finding aid is available online. For items in the Manuscript Collection, start with the link to “Finding Aids for Collections” from the Manuscript Reading Room’s homepage. You might also check the link for “Recently Processed Collections.” If your collection is not listed on one of those links, you might also check the links under “Catalogs, Bibliographies, and Guides.” These will not be full finding aids, but might help you gather more information about your collection before you arrive in DC. It is also important to contact the reading room before you arrive to be sure your collection is available: some collections are stored offsite and you will waste valuable time waiting for these to be delivered if you have not made advance arrangements.

All three LC buildings are connected by underground tunnels, but it is easy to get lost down there.  Additionally, entering the Jefferson building means you’ll have to deal with the lines of tourists. Instead, enter the Madison building directly, either directly from Independence Ave. or, if coming from the Metro, there is a back entrance on C Street you can use. The Independence Ave. entrance brings you directly into the atrium. Your first stop will be the Reader Registration room: turn left into the hallway and it will be on your left. (If coming from the C St. entrance, you will have to go up one floor and then make your way to the front of the building.) Once you are registered and have your card, return to the atrium: with your back to the front doors, the Manuscript Reading Room is to your left. On entering, you will see lockers, but do NOT hang up your gear yet. Go straight ahead to the guard’s desk to check in. On your first visit, you will be given additional paperwork to sign acknowledging the rules of the reading room. The guard will then give you a key to one of the lockers. (As you leave and enter the reading area after that, the guard will ask you for your locker number to check you in and out. You can keep the key if you’re leaving the building for lunch, but return the key to the guard when leaving for the day.)

Once in the reading area, put your things down at a table and note your seat number (printed on the table). Then go up to the main desk where an archivist will direct you to the filing cabinets of finding aids (many more than have been digitized online) and explain the process of calling for boxes from the collection. Once pulled, the boxes will be delivered to your seat. The Manuscript Reading Room does not have set pull times and will pull whenever you put in your request. They will pull boxes on Saturday as well, but they will not do any pulls within thirty minutes or so of closing time. Power outlets are available at each table, and the reading room has wireless access to the internet, as well as a few desktops with internet access. A limited number of cash photocopiers are available. Cameras and tripods are permitted.

There is a cafeteria on the top floor of Madison, and a coffee/snack bar in the basement, but be aware that both close between 10:30 and noon to switch over from breakfast to lunch, and both close early. On Saturdays, the snack bar has limited hours and the cafeteria is closed altogether. (There are vending machines near the snack bar accessible even when the snack bar is closed).  Alternatively, you may leave your equipment and materials in place and leave the building for lunch; there are many nearby options heading SE along Pennsylvania Ave. and a few on 1st St. SE just past D St. (including a Subway Store on the second floor of one building with only a single easy-to-miss door at street level). Some of these are open only for the weekday lunch rush. You may also bring your own food and eat in either of the food service areas, or, if the weather is nice, at one of the outdoor tables along Independence Ave.

Washington is expensive: expect to spend close to $10 for lunch, even at fast-food places. Dinner is also pricey: expect to pay at least $15, even at a “cheaper” place downtown. Your hotel will undoubtedly be able to tell you about restaurants nearby, but if you’re looking to get out a bit more, try the many restaurants of Chinatown, which is a bit of a walk from the LC but can be reached via Metro. You might also check out some of the watering holes stretching along Pennsylvania Ave. SE from the Library of Congress down to 8th St. and then south on 8th toward the Marine Corps Barracks. Walking south from the LC past the Metro station entrance brings you to a couple of personal favorites: “Tortilla Coast,” a Mexican restaurant on the corner of 1st and D SE, which has nightly specials, and “Bullfeathers,” just a few doors further south on 1st.  When Congress is not in session, Bullfeathers’ kitchen closes early.

There are many options for hotels: you will have to decide for yourself how to balance price with distance. Prices are generally lower in the winter, particularly when Congress is not in session.  You may find it worth investigating the “boutique” hotels – they may appear more expensive, but some include kitchenettes and/or breakfast buffets which may help you keep food costs down.  Some may have special rates for early booking on their website. Hotels near Capitol Hill are more likely to have discounted rates in the off-season and when Congress is not in session.

Most hotels are in the NW quadrant of DC, but don’t pass over the few hotels south of the Mall: The Best Western Capitol Skyline is an older hotel with few amenities in an area that is still a bit sketchy after dark, but has good off-season prices, while the Courtyard Hotel at the Navy Yard is quite new and more expensive, but has microwaves and mini-fridges in the rooms and is just a very short walk away from the Navy Yard Metro station on the green line. Both are moderate walks from the library. For convenience, you can’t beat the Capitol Hill Suites right next to Madison on the corner of 2nd and C St. SE. It’s expensive (much more so during the summer), but includes a good breakfast buffet and a pretty serious kitchenette in the room (no oven or stovetop but it includes real dishes and silverware plus cleaning supplies), so you can save on food. If you’re driving, expect to pay anywhere from $10-35/night for hotel parking, even outside of downtown. One way around these costs is to share the room with other grad students who also have research to do in Washington. Since Washington is home to a plethora of archives, graduate students congregate here in droves.

There is very little parking in Washington generally, and what there is tends to be very expensive. I strongly advise you to plan to get around by walking or using buses or the Metro system. The Capitol South station is just a half a block south of the Madison building’s C St. entrance. It can be reached with either a blue or orange line train. If you plan to make many trips to DC, it is probably worth it to purchase a SmarTrip card ($5) which can be loaded with money and is more flexible than Metrocards as it can be used on Circulator and Metrobuses as well as the Metro. Plus, if you register it, you should be able to recover its value if it is lost or stolen. Regardless of how you plan to do it, be sure to budget for getting around DC.

The Library of Congress has quite a number of fellowships available. Go to the LC’s fellowships page and play with the drop-down categories to find one that suits you.

No matter which way you slice it, research in DC is expensive. The prudent graduate student will do as much pre-planning as possible to get the most out of his or her time (and money) spent in Washington.

(Fall 2010)