Mark Wilson June 8th, 2011
WASHINGTON, D.C.–And not just any library — The Library of Congress. I am in the Thomas Jefferson Building, the front of which is shown above. In the heart of the Jefferson complex is the Main Reading Room (see below), where I’m occupying a desk in one of the concentric circles for readers. To get in I had to preregister as a researcher online and then file an application to receive a cool Reader’s Identification Card with my picture on it. I’m also demonstrating a fact about scientific research: for every hour spent in the field or lab, at least ten are required staring at a computer screen.
The Main Reading Room is extraordinary. It is circular with a giant dome above and a balcony level lined above with allegorical Greek female plaster statues 10 feet high symbolizing Religion, Commerce, History, Art, Philosophy, Poetry, Law and Science. Just below is a ring of 16 life-size bronze statues of Famous Men (all men) who led lives of thought and, I suppose, reading. (Unlike in Wooster’s Timken Science Library, Darwin does not make the cut.) It is a very impressive place to be a scholar, although every cough and sneeze echoes mightily through here.
The Library of Congress was established in 1800 when the capitol of the United States moved from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. The British burned it in 1814 during that regrettable little War of 1812, but Thomas Jefferson stepped up and presented his personal library to the nation as a replacement. It is now the largest library in the world counting books and shelf space.
I am here to get some writing done. My main mission in Washington this week is to see Lisa Park in the National Science Foundation headquarters (more on that later), but I’m spending a good two days of the visit writing a draft of a manuscript. I need a place to write with an internet connection, few distractions, and a sense of formality. No place is more formal, scholarly or serious than this!
The collections here are primarily for the humanities and social sciences. This is not a problem for me because all the resources I need are electronic and only a few clicks away. Plus I don’t feel lonely here as a scientist because this good man is looking down on me: