Since I moved to DC five months ago friends and strangers have inundated me with recommendations of places to visit, and activities to do. With my “to do” list continuing to grow, I decided recently to visit the Library of Congress, possibly the most oft recommended stop of all.
Touted by my tour guide as the “most beautiful building in Washington,” the Library is an intricate, meticulously designed shrine to knowledge and learning. Upon its walls are inscribed reverent phrases from Wordsworth, Tennyson, Keats, and Shakespeare on the quest for enlightenment. Every way I turned I saw floor-to-ceiling panels or sculptures or architectural elements promoting poetry, law, commerce, history, art, science, or religion. Covering one wall of the entrance to the famed reading room in the east corridor of the Jefferson Building, there is a large mosaic of Minerva, the Roman god of wisdom. She is portrayed gazing at an unfurling scroll which displays an extensive list of fields of learning, including architecture, law, statistics, sociology, botany, biography, mechanics, philosophy, zoology, etc. I was struck by the variety of topics the library’s designers took care to highlight and extol, and by the ideal they subscribe to in their work; that each subject should be celebrated as representative of human wisdom, and given equal value, esteem, and attention.
Thomas Jefferson’s vision for the Library of Congress was that it be a universal resource, where Congress and American citizens could become knowledgeable on any subject. He was adamant that the Library contain a comprehensive wealth of knowledge on all subjects because he believed that the American legislature needed to a grasp of a wide array of ideas and topics in order to govern effectively. He wrote in a letter to Congress supporting the inclusion of a diversity of books that there was “no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”
Jefferson also believed an educated citizenry would in turn create a powerful and prosperous nation. As interpreted by the Library of Congress, education does not simply mean that citizens should have the skills needed to read, write, calculate, etc., but that they also be able to use these skills to do things like conduct experiments, discuss literature, explore history, debate religion, and ask questions about anything and everything.
The Library of Congress is intended to be the ultimate source of information and knowledge in America. It remains a national reserve of priceless educational treasures where any citizen can come to better themselves through learning. And yet, if you took an average public school class to visit the library today, how many of the students would even know the names and references etched on the walls of the building? Our schools and curriculums have become so bogged down, and obsessed, with ensuring students have the basic skills they need that the rich and exciting content that makes learning meaningful is being lost. Students aren’t encouraged to learn because it is their human right and responsibility to become enlightened and informed, instead they are encouraged to learn the skills they need to pass a test.
It is time to reaffirm our national commitment to the pursuit of deep, complex, and comprehensive knowledge, and to recognize the value of all the diverse fields of study that the Library of Congress represents. As Americans we are so fortunate to live in a country that allows, and encourages, education for all of its citizens; there are so few countries that provide this opportunity, and fewer still with the wealth of publicly available resources to do so. It is time we made the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people” a mission that every school, teacher, student, and citizen can embrace and fulfill.
You can learn more about the Library of Congress, and its history, here.
Jefferson to Samuel H. Smith, September 21, 1814, Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress