|NOT AN AVERAGE LIBRARY|
August 4 , 2000
RAY SUAREZ: To the strains of Aaron Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," the Library of Congress celebrated its 200th birthday this year. There was a day-long party on the mall, a tribute to American living legends, including Sesame Street's Big Bird, and a special exhibit honoring the library's hero, Thomas Jefferson.
Originally conceived as a library just for Congress, which was housed in the capitol building, the purpose and scope of the library has grown dramatically in the last two centuries. It is the largest library in the world, with nearly 119 million items. Items: Letters, maps, paintings, manuscripts, prints, photos, films, comic books and cookbooks. You name it. On the main floor is a rare and revered 15th century Gutenberg Bible. But not too far away are two new exhibits: One on the American classic, "The Wizard of Oz"; and the other, the "Bob Hope Gallery of Entertainment," with 88,000 of Hope's jokes available on a jukebox.
We recently visited the Library of Congress escorted by its librarian, Dr. James Billington. We started in the great hall of the Thomas Jefferson building. Somebody wanted to make this place beautiful, not just useful. So what's the idea behind that?
DR. JAMES BILLINGTON, Library of Congress: Well, the idea is basically, this building is going to include everything, just like the library. That's the four seasons. You don't see much snow unless the white is snow. It's not just kind of classical figures like this or the three graces who are up on the ceiling. In the end you expect to find something else. What do you find? You find American baseball. It looks like classical antiquity. It looks the Greek Olympics. But if you look closer, you see it's baseball that was just emerging at that time.
RAY SUAREZ: "Tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stone, and good in everything." This place is like a sermon in stone. Useful little quotes and little sayings and fragments of things, but it's not sort of shoved down your throat like chopped kale. It's almost fun.
DR. JAMES BILLINGTON: It is. Here's prudence and temperance, lovely feminine figures reminding us of some of the virtues that were valued at the end of the last century.
RAY SUAREZ: By marking the 200th anniversary of the library now, I guess you've got in mind a date that you can really say, this is when it all began.
DR. JAMES BILLINGTON: Well, it's first day was from John Adams on April 24, 1800, signed the bill creating the Library of Congress. Then it was recreated after the British occupied Washington and burned the original by purchasing Thomas Jefferson's library, which was the largest private library at the time of independence, to being the largest library in the world.
RAY SUAREZ: I think the early 19th century worthies who helped get the library going would recognize and understand right off the bat why Thomas Jefferson's library is valuable. Across this arc of two centuries, they'd walk into that room and get it right away. But Bob Hope's jokes and L. Frank Baum's children's stories might not have been what they had in mind in 1800 when they got this thing going. How did your mission grow over time?
DR. JAMES BILLINGTON: Well, it grew because of American creativity. Remember, John Adams wrote this famous letter to his wife. He said we have studied war and diplomacy so that our children can study mathematics and Philosophy, and our grandchildren the arts. There was always a sense, right from the beginning, of America that we had to make some sacrifices, but that this was going to be a very creative people. Frank Baum, Bob Hope-- well, humor is another constant, but it's developed so richly in America and the American popular stage.
We have also assumed a rather new obligation for the library, which is that think in keeping the Jeffersonian idea more knowledge for more people so they could use it in more ways -- to use the electronic possibilities to get our most interesting and important elements of American history, the project we call American Memory, out free on the Internet to schools, colleges and to homes. And for our 200th birthday we put on a new Web site designed for families, designed for everybody called America's library.gov.
RAY SUAREZ: Billington and I then walked into the library's main reading room. Tell me about this room.
DR. JAMES BILLINGTON: Well, it's one of the great interior spaces in America, maybe even in the world. It's the general reading room where everybody can come. You can plug in your laptop as well as get books and you can be inspired by the space, by the imagery, and just the sense that somehow everything comes together, just the way the architecture and the statuary does.
RAY SUAREZ: And it really pulls together a lot of the ideas that you've been talking about in the rest of the library-- the fact that the world, the knowledge of the world comes here, because the world is acknowledged on the ceiling as having had a hand in creating American civilization.
DR. JAMES BILLINGTON: Yes. All the different parts of antiquity, the middle ages, Islam, various contributors to human understanding, ring around the Goddess of Human Understanding herself. And of course, the image of Lincoln with a dynamo is the one that represents America. A young Lincoln, a young vigorous Lincoln, the way we imagine America to be at the end of the last century.
RAY SUAREZ: So when we come in here on a regular day and everything is open and up, who are the people who are working at these desks?
DR. JAMES BILLINGTON: You'll have people doing theses for courses, seminars, and doctoral theses, a lot of students, you have a lot of retired people who are developing new intellectual interests, you have people who want to read something about finding a new job or how to repair their automobile. If you've got a legitimate question or research interest, why we're the public library of the United States.
RAY SUAREZ: Billington then showed me a collection of various treasures owned by the Library of Congress showing both the "gee whiz" gems, and priceless milestones of human knowledge and curiosity.
RAY SUAREZ: So what are we looking at?
DR. JAMES BILLINGTON: Here we have what's really the first modern travel book. It's a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which is of course an old medieval theme from the 1480's. Huge panoramic picture of the Holy Land. It's a the first sort of, in a way, modern map; this is a map of New York from about 1630's, very shortly, the first Dutch settlement, the cartographer of the Dutch West Indies Company, and you have Manhattan Island. It's seen a different way than it usually is. There are windmills illustrated here, boweries which were little farms. Manhattan looked like a pretty peaceful bucolic place. And some of the names like Staten Island and Hellgate were actually on the original - in the original Dutch versions -
RAY SUAREZ: Coney Island.
DR. JAMES BILLINGTON: Coney island. There it is. No roller coasters. Now this is an interesting one as well. The first Japanese delegation that came to Washington, 81 people came in 1858, 1860, and they recorded in their record of the picture of what Washington looked like. It looks like an oriental painting. There's the Washington Monument, only half built. The capitol building looms high on Capitol Hill, but it all looks... It's sort of an American city as seen from Japanese eyes -- before Japan was opened up to the West at all. This is the ending of probably this is the ending of probably one of the greatest American orations ever given, Lincoln's second inaugural address. He says it was a war - all dreaded it, all sought to avert it. He has no prediction of when its going to end, but he says, "Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray that this mighty scourge of war may pass away.
RAY SUAREZ: He was dead six weeks later.
DR. JAMES BILLINGTON: And he was dead very shortly thereafter. This is tinkers to evers to chance, the famous double-play combination. These are the saddest of works "tinkers to evers to chance, turning the giants hit into a double, words that are fraught with nothing but trouble, tinkers to evers to chance." This is what was F.B. Adams wrote about the world's most famous double-word play combination. This is the original piano and vocal score of "Porgy and Bess," and this is the score that George Gershwin played on the piano himself as he was trying to persuade Todd Duncan to take the role of Porgy. This is the great train robbery of 1803, the first western movie ever made. It was made in northern New Jersey, but we don't worry about that too much. So anyhow, these are a few of the... This is only the tip of a very large iceberg, but it gives you some idea of the variety of formats and the variety of ways in which knowledge and creativity has been both recorded and preserved here.
RAY SUAREZ: And the centuries, and the languages, and wow, it's just really something.
DR. JAMES BILLINGTON: And the white gloves.
RAY SUAREZ: And the white gloves.
DR. JAMES BILLINGTON: So that we keep these things.
RAY SUAREZ: As part of its 200 birthday, the Thomas Jefferson Exhibit will be open through October 31 at the Library of Congress. In case you miss it, there are more than 25,000 of Jefferson's papers currently available on its Web site.