My experience researching at the Library of Congress is fairly extensive and I was most recently there this past February. I’ve used the Main Reading Room, Newspaper & Current Periodical Room, Geography & Map Reading Room, and Microform Reading Room over the past few years. The experience there can be highly dependent on the individual. It may depend on who you come into contact with in the library and certainly which reading room you are using. Overall, though, I think my experiences can be helpful for people preparing to go to the Library of Congress for the first time.
LOC Layout: Maps and Floor Plans
The main building at the Library of Congress is the Jefferson Building. Researchers enter under the stairs pictured above. The Madison and Adams buildings are across the street. They are all connected through a tunnel system.
Reader Registration: LOC Reader Registration Website
The Reader Registration Station is in the Madison Building and you can pre-register online before going there in person to get your picture taken and card printed out. I’ve also had to renew my card. Both times the process was straightforward and even though you might have to wait in line for a few minutes it goes quickly. They’ll also answer any basic questions about directions around the buildings etc for your first visit.
Accessing the Reading Rooms: List of Reading Rooms
It’s most helpful to determine beforehand which reading room you’ll need by looking up your materials in the catalog. The experience in each of the separate reading rooms is completely different so you just have to go to that room and ask at the information desk how things work in that area if you’re not sure.
For the main reading room, leave your belongings at the cloakroom desk by the main entrance to the Jefferson Building (or the downstairs cloakroom depending on what time of day it is – see signs posted at main cloakroom desk). Then you walk to the back of the entrance hall and wind your way along the hallways to the elevator, go up a floor, and you’re right outside the main reading room and the microfilm room. Honestly, it is pretty easy to get turned around. Once while attempting to leave I had security guards yell at me through a closed door not to go that direction, which was a strange experience to say the least.
If you’re going from the Madison Building to the Jefferson Building, you can avoid going through security a second time by crossing through the tunnels in the basement. They also have a Dunkin Donuts and Subway down there if you need a food break.
Accessing Your Materials:
Once you have your card you can order materials before you go to the library for the day for some of the reading rooms. Others you need to fill out a slip in person. The delivery times can vary greatly and may take more than a day.
If you’re tight on time, I highly recommend emailing ask a librarian before you go to see if you’ll be able to access your materials. Actually I would recommend doing that even if you think you have a lot of time. My main caution would be to not rely on the catalog to tell if materials are going to be available (for historic materials particularly, rather than secondary sources). For example, I discovered some interesting materials on the last day of a trip one January, and decided to plan another trip to be able to work with those particular materials more thoroughly. I came back the next May assuming I would be able to order them as before, but as it turned out those materials had been dinged for preservation when I had looked at them previously. There was no way to access them.
Luckily there were other materials that I could work with to fill my time and I had the opportunity to return a few months later. This time I emailed with a librarian and had her assurances that my materials would be available. I printed out her email, which was useful when I was again told that my materials were in preservation after ordering them through the online system. Luckily one of the people working at the main desk in the reading room was able to track everything down, but only because she had the name of the librarian I had emailed with and was able to talk to her personally.
Historic newspapers are one type of material where it is especially important to talk to someone about what is available because the date listing in the online catalog seems to generally be for the whole run of the newspaper, not necessarily what the library actually holds.
The Main Reading Room:
The Main Reading Room is gorgeous and I would recommend going on the tour of the Jefferson Building even if you are not researching there. Materials that you order online will be delivered to the desk you have selected or to the main desk. You can ask for permission to take pictures of the materials (you aren’t supposed to take pictures of the actual reading room though). Overall the reference librarians and support staff are helpful, but are especially so if you can be specific about what you are looking for and as prepared as possible ahead of time.
Amazingly extensive collections allowing you to stumble upon things you’ve never heard of before; contrasting the lovely Main Reading Room with the sparse winding basement tunnels and Dunkin Donuts; all that plus you can wander around the outside of the Capitol, Supreme Court, and the US Botanic Garden when you want to take a study break.