WASHINGTON – Each year, hundreds of thousands of people stream into the Library of Congress to enjoy the roughly 32 million books and 61 million manuscripts in three buildings across the street from the U.S. Capitol. The remarkable collection also includes thousands of comic books, sound recordings, a Gutenberg Bible and two Stradivari violins.
Arguably the most grand room in Washington is the ornate Great Hall in the Thomas Jefferson Building. The iconic main reading room is often depicted in film and TV shows.
But despite the impressive grandeur of the Library of Congress, I prefer two congressional libraries inside the U.S. Capitol a little better.
The first is the original Library of Congress in the Senate wing of the Capitol, the first section of the building workers completed. Though the Library of Congress is now considered a palatial institution, it didn’t start that way.
In the early 19th century, the Library of Congress was little more than a reading room. I guess they figured if they were going to have a Congress, they ought to have a library. So they dedicated a small room near the Senate chamber and dumped some books in there so folks could go in there and read. Later, Thomas Jefferson donated his collection of books to the library.
But perhaps the people who got the most use out of the library were not early-American politicians, but British Redcoats. In the summer of 1814, the British captured Washington and burned the Capitol. They seized books in the small library for kindling and used them to help torch the rest of the building.
Today, the original Library of Congress is a suite of offices used by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). It’s designated as rooms to be used by the GOP Senate Leader.
But while I like that place, it’s still not my favorite "library" of Congress. The other one is extremely public, yet few ever even think of it as a library.
There’s a TV studio located on the House side of the Capitol inside the Radio-TV Gallery. This is where journalists from electronic news outlets (such as myself) keep small booths and work each day. And the studio is where lawmakers can hold press conferences.
In the studio, a lectern is positioned atop a dais at the front of the room in front of an American flag and a three-level wooden bookcase.
I don’t know where it started, but some TV floor director years ago got the idea that when you interview a news subject on camera, a bookshelf or library as a backdrop helps communicate integrity and credibility. The bookshelf and flag props in the House Radio-TV Gallery are there for the same reasons: to exude patriotism and intellect when a congressman appears on camera.
Most Americans who watch TV news with any regularity have seen this room on the air. But frankly, the rest of the room that the public doesn’t see is rather dingy. And when I show this room in person to visitors, they all make the same comment when they spot the bookshelf: "Ah. Fake books."
Only, they aren’t.
One of my favorite tricks is then showing my guests that the books aren’t counterfeit as I pull a few of them off the shelf. But my friends always explode in laughter when I demonstrate that the books have actually been cleaved in half to fit on the shelf. The spines are in tact to look good on camera. But someone chopped off the exposed pages on the opposite side.
Talk about abridged editions.
I’m quite confident this bookshelf represents of the few examples in Washington of the federal government doing more with less. One tourist remarked that lawmakers writing bills should follow the lead of the House book-cutter. Most bills swell to several hundred pages in length before they’re complete. So this tourist suggested that lawmakers halve every bill like they did with these books.
I’m in and out of that studio several times a day for news conferences and interviews when Congress is in session. But until recently, I never stopped to actually catalogue what books are in this unique, truncated collection.
Some of the books aren’t surprises: "The History of The American People" by Woodrow Wilson. "Cases and Materials on Constitutional Law." Several volumes of the Encyclopedia Britanica. A 1910 Directory from Harvard University. There’s even half a Warren Commission Report on President Kennedy’s Assassination.
I have no clue which part got hacked out: "Grassy" or "Knoll."
A few of the books may even come in handy for reading during the financial crisis. Perhaps some lawmakers may have found it beneficial to leaf through Adam Smith’s "The Wealth of Nations" before voting on the $700 billion financial rescue package a few weeks ago. And before taking over bankrupt lending institutions like IndyMac Bank, members of the House Financial Services Committee may have found it beneficial to take a gander at something called "Bank Costs for Planning and Control."
The economic crisis is so bad, others may have found solace reading "The Christ we Forget."
Then this motley collection devolves into the downright bizarre. And it makes one wonder how these books ever found their way into the Capitol, let alone this particular bookshelf.
"Construction of Masonry Dams."
"The Law of Chemical, Metalurgical and Pharmaceutical Patents."
A novel entitled "The Duchess of Wrexe."
An illustrated offering called "Diseases of the Stomach."
Still other books seem right at home here in Congress:
"High Crimes and Misdemeanors."
And my favorite…
"The Mind and Its Disorders."
Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s earned an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.