Last week I walked across the Mall to an appointment at the Library of Congress, the sun beating down on my head as I maneuvered between pools of shade on the dusty paths. The grass was already turning brown and brittle in the heat; the leaves on the young trees were yellow. Capitol Hill was a gentle incline compared to the steep hills at home in Manayunk. The gardens were dark green and raspy with the first cicadas. (You say ci-cay-da, I say ci-cah-da ...)
Yasmeen Kahn, book conservator at the Library of Congress (known in Washington’s acronym-heavy jargon as “LC”), met me outside the fluttering bronze books on the front of the Madison Building. We ate at a diner across the street, and then she gave me a tour of both the Jefferson Building and the rare book conservation lab. Yasmeen is petite, generous, soft-spoken, knowledgeable, and hilarious—the perfect host for a wide-eyed book conservation neophyte like myself.
The Jefferson Building, where the reading rooms are located, is a cathedral of books, any of which may be requested by a member of the reading public. It’s the type of lavishly decorated, soaring space most of us encounter only on movie screens, and to know that it’s our own public library, and not the private haunt of a wealthy billionaire, is pretty awe-inspiring. Yasmeen led me down a beautiful side corridor with mosaic floors, vaulted ceilings, gilt moldings, and beautiful vignettes everywhere. The Member’s Room opened off the corridor to the right: an equally ornate space with gorgeous thick carpet and twin fireplaces, where Congress members can relax with a good read. (Sadly, they never do.) Long, shuttered and curtained windows opened onto the Capitol grounds. At the end of the corridor, we peered into the opulent Asian Reading Room, with its two-story tiers of shelves (apparently mirrored on the opposite side of the building by the African Reading Room).
We then returned to the extravagant marble-columned entrance hall and descended a level to the researchers’ area under and around the main reading room, which occupies a dome at the center of the building. The core or hub of this subfloor contains a conveyor-belt system by which books are supplied from the stacks to the reading room above. Several more reading rooms radiate from the corridor around it, including a children’s room, a young readers’ room, and the Hispanic Reading Room, which Yasmeen showed me.
Back up one level, and we entered the main reading room itself, a two-story space encircled with bookshelves and glass walls, behind which lie more reading rooms and carrels lined with shelves. Some are very ornate, and at least one is a recreation of a donor’s private library. Velvet curtains and rich textures vie with gold and marble and walnut. The conveyor belt brings books up to the elaborate wooden desk in the center of the room, and librarians hand them out to visiting researchers.
Yasmeen then led me through an underground corridor to the Madison Building, and we entered another world. No more decadent spaces: the working areas of LC are a maze of white corridors, more like a hospital than anything else. The book conservation lab is an orderly grouping of workbenches separated by book presses and other tools, all ranged around a wide central table. I saw stitched Chinese books from Taiwan, foxed pamphlets of Haitian law, Armenian manuscripts with problematic paints and varnishes, plastic-wrapped scrolls used by Indian street storytellers, and sacred palm-leaf books with delicate incised illustrations. The array of library materials was amazing, and the conservation problems were fascinating. I left feeling certain that I had chosen the right field, and nervous about all the things I still have to learn.