The Library of Congress Restores My Soul

LOC Main Reading Room, Hayes Willingham




Once upon a time (pre-Covid), thus began my weekly spiel, as I led visitors from all over the world, on a tour of the Nation’s Library.

This bibliophile previously had worked Bishop Payne’s circulation desk at VTS, and knew that if I ever left I would have to channel my love of reading somehow. So, in the fall of 2016, I was OVER THE MOON when I was accepted into the docent training program at the Library of Congress (LOC).

In class, I got to fawn at the feet of remarkable librarians – curators of remarkable collections. We got to go behind the scenes and behind closed doors. Into the stacks and into the reading rooms.

We got to touch – well not actually touch – but see up close – Thomas Edison’s pencil sketch of the telephone; Thomas Jefferson’s journal pages; Amelia Earhart’s flight logs.

WOW. Right? WOW.

Kind of like a Bachelor of Arts education in all things LOC, we heard from art historians, rare book collectors, doctors of the arts, experts in archtecture, scholars of the Gilded Age, cultural conservationists, book preservationists, and aficionados of all kinds.

LOC’s Jefferson Building is breathtaking: Beaux Arts breathtaking. A boastful triumphant building completed in 1897; fifty American artists worked, painted, crafted, and sculpted its insides. America flexed its cultural muscles at the close of the 19th century. The United States was as great a nation as any in Europe. And a great nation – needs a great library.

library of congress compass rose floor

In the floor of the Great Hall is a multicolored marble Compass Rose — surrounded by the twelve signs of the zodiac in bronze. Parallel white marble staircases rise on either side – each carved with angelic looking figures – who are not actually angels at all but little boys with jobs.😊

Halfway up each staircase is a globe flanked by two figures. To the left is Asia and Europe. To the right Africa and the Americas.

Learning is universal, you see, and comes from all four corners of the universe. This library – the LARGEST library in the world – is America’s library – but it is not an American library – half the collection is in languages other than English – 470 and counting.

This is not some 21st-century-cultural-diversity-tax collector-waste-of-money-thing. This is the raison d’etre of the place. The raison d’être ever since the first library (then located in the Capitol building across the street) was burned by the British in the War of 1812.

In 1814 Thomas Jefferson stepped up to offer his own books to restart the fledgling Congressional Library.

Jefferson’s literary collection was one of the most extensive in the young United States. He cataloged his books according to memory, reason, and imagination: history, philosophy, and the arts. He had books in 16 languages including Arabic and Native American dialects. He had books about bee keeping, magic tricks, and Italian cooking. He had books about EVERYTHING.

Congress balked. We just want the law books, they said. But Jefferson argued that “There may not be a subject to which a member of Congress may not need to refer in the course of their work.” So, Congress bought his 6,487 books for $23,900.

And LOC to this day, still collects this way. It is Thomas Jefferson on steroids.

And the library’s universal collection is universally available to anyone – not just members of Congress.

library of congress good government

Just above the doors to the Main Reading Room are a series of murals called Good Government. A young boy with books tucked under his arm drops his ballot into a Grecian voting urn. Good government rests on the equal opportunity of education for EVERYONE. Not just for the elected ones.

When I introduce myself to visitors, I boast that when I was in high school, I used to do my homework in the Main Reading Room. My family on the Peacock side goes back seven generations in the Nation’s Capital – back to the late 18th century. My mom was a (not very serious) member of the DAR. A 13 year old Nathaniel Peacock arrived stowed away on a boat at Jamestown the century before.

library of congress dome

But I am no more American than the most recent naturalized citizen – be they from Mexico, Syria, South Korea, Guatemala, Germany, or Yemen. They are just as American as you and me.

We are a nation defined by liberty and law — not by ethnicity, religion, or race. Right?

Whether I be on docent duty via Zoom or in person, the Library of Congress never fails to restore my soul. It’s a safe space where partisan politics are verboten; a secular temple which celebrates our nation’s highest ideal.

Born of the radical Enlightenment idea that “all people are created equal.” A truth later poetically proclaimed by the Statue of Liberty.

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me.  I lift my light beside the golden door.

This is the kind of hospitality that “welcomes the needy for the sake of their need.” A biblical scholar writes:

“Take that love for family, that love for country and kin, and extend it, extend it further and further still. Welcome in the stranger. Welcome in the one whose life you hardly understand. Not to change them but because they are just as much a child of God as you are.” (Feasting on the Word, Lance Pape)

This is a big, big stretch for most of us, right? We all are out of practice. We all need some exercise – to stretch our heart muscles beyond our comfort zone. To stretch our welcome beyond our cul de sac, beyond our neighborhood, beyond the fences that divide us. To stretch our heart muscles until we feel the burn.

In ways both big and small.

Stretch, my friends, stretch.

Throw wide open your library’s doors.


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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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