I think the inside of the Library of Congress, or the LOC, is the prettiest building in Washington DC. I also love books, so the idea of a place that is full of books, excites me. Of course visiting, you don’t really get to see all of those books, but you can see some.
First, I would stop at the Visitor Information Desk. There, they have maps with suggested itineraries, depending on how much time you want to spend. If you’re with kids between 8 and 12, and plan on spending at least 30 minutes, ask for a Discovery Guide, a great resource for exploring the LOC. (They are currently working on a guide for younger children also, so ask about that, too.)
With resources in hand, I would try and see the 10-minute movie, although not required, about the Library of Congress. It is in the Visitors’ Tour area, and starts 10 minutes before every tour.
The tours are once an hour on the half hour starting at 10:30, so the movie starts at 20 past the hour with the first one at 10:20. It’s a great introduction to the Library of Congress.
After the movie, you can of course take the guided tour, or you can leave the area and explore on your own. My kids often ask me, “Can we NOT take the tour?” It’s not that the tour is not interesting—it is very much so—but it is not so interesting for kids, at least my kids.
So, if you’re going to explore on your own—this is what I suggest:
1. Go up one level of stairs to the first floor, which will put you in the Great Hall. The Great Hall is beautiful to look at. Especially look at the putti (the cherubs that are engraved in the stone under the two stairways). The putti represent different occupations that were common when the building was built in the 1890s. Try to figure out what jobs the putti are representing. Then try to think of what the putti would be holding today to represent occupations of today.
2. Before going to the next floor, take a peek at the Gutenberg Bible.
3. If you’re interested in maps at all, like me, take a quick look at the map exhibit on the first floor. It’s fun to see how the map of the US has changed over time.
4. Head up to the second floor. Once again, make sure you are looking around and taking in the beauty of the building.
5. On the second floor, go to the stairway that will lead you up to the Main Reading Room Overlook. Before heading up, look at the Minerva Mosaic. You can play a quick game with your kids, or who ever you are with. Have them look at the mosaic for 30 seconds, then turn around and face you while you are still looking at the mosaic. Ask them questions to see what they remember. I like asking the questions, because I usually remember very little. But this helps my kids start to look at the details of art more closely.
6. Go to the Main Reading Room Overlook.
7. Visit Thomas Jefferson’s Library—an exhibit on the second floor. This is probably my and my kids’ favorite exhibit.
If you are visiting the Library of Congress with pretty young kids, make sure you visit the Young Readers Center, which is full of kids’ books to read. They have a story time every Friday morning at 10:30; they hand out free tickets starting at 10:00 and, yes, you do need a ticket to get in. I’ve gone here even with my older kids for a little break—and because we love children’s books!