Researching at the Library of Congress (Part I)

I’ve been asked to go into the specifics of what’s it like to work at the LC. Since it’s unlike any other research library you’re apt to encounter I think the information may be helpful to those who are considering making the pilgrimage.

But before we get to the LC itself, let’s talk about staying in Washington. A few things you ought to know — first, it’s horrendously expensive to stay there. A room in downtown DC will generally run you $125 minimum. On previous trips to the LC we’ve stayed at a Super 8 Motel out in Anacostia at the ‘bargain’ price of $80 a night, but it’s nowhere near a subway line. We had our car that time and drove into downtown every morning, which is a big mistake. Traffic is terrible, the streets (with all due respect to Mr. L’Enfant) are confusing, and finding a place to park is a major undertaking. You’ll most likely end up with a mile-long hike up Capitol Hill once you do find parking (for which, figure another $15-20 per day).

On another trip we found a real bargain — a downtown bed and breakfast place happened to have an unexpected late cancellation and we were able to bargain with the guy to get it at $75 a night. That place was in walking distance to the LC, about 1/2 a mile. This was a real pleasure, despite the cost, because we didn’t have to rent a car or deal with public transportation at all. Of course this was a case of all the stars aligning just right — don’t hold your breath to get this lucky.

On this most recent trip we got the bargain of all bargains. After looking all over for a good deal at a hotel/motel/b&b and finding nothing under $100 a night I posted a message on Craigslist more or less begging for anyone with a cheap room to contact me. I received just one response, but it was perfect. The Norwich House is right outside the University of Maryland and rents rooms only to researchers. Rentals are by the week or the month and run about $25-30 a night, an incredible bargain. The accommodations are anything but swank — it’s just a somewhat rundown old house. The rooms feature daybeds with air mattresses (oh, my achin’ back) and two tiny bathrooms shared by up to a half a dozen or so residents. The kitchen is available to all, and each room gets assigned a small space in their refrigerator. You’re in amongst a lot of frat houses, so expect to have trouble getting to sleep on Friday and Saturday nights when they’re all partying. There’s a common room where you can watch a tiny little TV with snowy reception, and an overworked wi-fi internet connection is available in the rooms. But ya can’t beat that price with a stick and I will definitely be using their accommodations on my next trip. The house is about 1/2 a mile from the nearest subway station, and since they’re so far out the ride to the LC takes a good 40 minutes.

Getting To The Library
The subway in Washington is pretty darn good (and I have high standards coming from Montreal, which has one of the best subway systems in the world). On weekdays the trains arrive on a 5-6 minute schedule at outlying stations, 3 minutes downtown. On weekends you will wait more like 10-15 minutes for a train. Fares are a bit on the expensive side for short hops, longer rides get progressively cheaper. When you first use the subway you’ll want to get one of their money cards — the cards cost $10 and come preloaded with $5 value; after that you can reload the card at any station with any amount of your choosing. You can reload with a credit card, which is a nice convenience. These cards can also be bought online before you go–nice to have it available from the start.

The system can be a bit confusing for a newbie, especially transferring from one subway line to another, but the subway personnel are quite helpful, as are the other riders who often volunteer to help you when they see that ‘deer in the headlights’ look on your face.

DC also has an extensive bus system. I’ve been told by residents that it is horribly confusing for visitors and to avoid it if at all possible. We only had to use one bus — to get from the Baltimore airport to the nearest subway station. It’s the B30. Have the exact fare ($3.10) if at all possible because drivers don’t give change. The subway cards can be used but I could find nowhere to purchase them at the airport (brilliant, eh?).

Arriving at the LC
The LC is located right at the exit of the Capitol South subway station. The LC consists of three large buildings downtown (Jefferson, Adams, and Madison). The microfilm and newspaper collections are in the Madison building — the ugly slab of granite you see up the hill on your right as you exit from the Capitol South subway station.

Security at the LC is VERY tight — orders of magnitude greater than anything you’ll encounter at other libraries. On your first visit you will have to apply for a reader registration card. Once you go through the airport-style security checkpoint at the entrance of the Madison building you’ll go down the left side hallway. You’ll see a sign for the cloakroom and reader registration about halfway down the hall. The door is always closed. Go in and hang a right to the registration area. You’ll have to have a driver’s license or other official ID, fill out a registration form, explain your business to the very jaundiced eye of an interviewer and get photographed. If they’re busy this process can take up to an hour. If you already have an ID but it’s more than five years old or so expect to have to re-register.

Once you’ve got your reader registration card you have the run of the library — not. The next thing you do is relieve yourself of most of your worldly possessions in the cloakroom. All you are allowed to take into the newspaper/microfilm room is a laptop, paper and pens, and a very small clear plastic bag of personal items. The rules about what you may and may not take in change from moment to moment based on the whims of the security personnel. The attendant in the cloakroom may tell you what you can expect to be able to take in, but then you may very well be told something different when you actually get to the microfilm room. If you have a short fuse the LoC is definitely not for you. Sometimes it seems as if the whole mission of the LoC is to see just how much petty bureaucracy it takes before you go completely bonkers and have to be dragged out of the place.

To get to the microfilm room take a left in the hallway as you exit the cloakroom, and then go right at the end of that hall. You’ll pass a bank of elevators, then start looking on your left for a set of double doors with a whole bunch of signs on them. Somewhere in that mess of warning and admonition signs it will mention that you have indeed arrived at the microfilm reading room. The door is always closed. Go on in and present yourself to the security person at the desk. This is the putz who will most likely tell you that you’ve brought in too much stuff and must go back to the cloakroom. Assuming you pass muster you’ll have to show our reader card and sign in. Keep that reader card handy — you’ll have to show it again every time you enter the room.

Okay, I got you into the room and that’s a good place to stop for the day. Tomorrow we’ll press on to actually doing research.

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