The spirit and history of the Library of Congress rolled into town for a visit aboard a traveling exhibition dubbed, “The Gateway to Knowledge” earlier this month.
“We have three primary goals,” said Mike Crosson, a program developer for MRA Experiential Tours And Equipment who worked with the Library of Congress to help design the exhibit.
“First is to get people familiar with the Library of Congress, because they’re not. The second thing is to get people to go to the website and learn more about all of the resources that are available through the Library of Congress. The third goal is to get people to go to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.”
The exhibition, which is mounted on an 18-wheel custom semi rig that expands to three times the trailer’s road width, was parked at the main campus Jan. 4-5.
Inside, the first wall is lined with a brief history of the library, recalling its conception in 1800, its burning down in 1814 and 1851, the John Adams and James Madison buildings eventually added to the complex in order to facilitate the collection’s rapid growth, the addition of the National Audio Visual Conservation Center to the library, and the Jefferson Building’s recent restoration.
Alongside the library’s history are many photographs of the building throughout time, and a picture of the Jefferson Building’s great hall, showing its intricate artwork and architecture, with the photo focusing on a large painting mounted atop the main staircase depicting Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and the arts.
The next portion of the exhibit featured a bust of Thomas Jefferson and briefly explained his involvement with the Library of Congress.
Jefferson offered to sell his personal book collection to Congress after the library’s destruction in 1814, but would only sell it as a whole.
When some members of Congress doubted the need to buy the entirety of the collection due to its diverse subject matter, Jefferson retorted, “There is, in fact, no subject to which a member of Congress might not have occasion to refer.”
In 1815 Congress agreed to purchase all 6,487 books in Jefferson’s collection for $23,950, and by doing so laid a new foundation on which the library was rebuilt.
The exhibit also stressed how Jefferson kept such careful records of his library and how this helped rebuild his collection after one-third of it was lost in an 1851 fire.
“They’ve rebuilt about ninety percent of it. Most things that haven’t been replaced are pamphlets and things like that”, said Josh Van Gelder, who with his wife Abigail form a duo of docent-trucker hybrids who operate the exhibition across the country year-round.
The rest of the exhibition is arranged in three sections: memory, reason, and imagination; the same fashion in which Jefferson arranged his library.
Included are short histories and facsimiles of items such as a first edition of the 1455 Guttenberg Bible, the 1507 Waldseemüller map, the Huexotzinco Codex, the first draft of the Declaration of Independence including changes and side-notes by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, a Bell Lab notebook, the first-ever copyrighted motion picture, from 1894, “Fred Ott’s Sneeze,” ancient Persian calligraphy, song manuscripts written by Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, who is described as Americas first jazz composer, a first edition copy of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves Of Grass,” and a copy of the first “Spider-Man” comic by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.
At opposite ends of the exhibition, televisions play featurettes about the Library of Congress and its vast resources, while computers stationed in the central area of the exhibition allow visitors to explore the library’s enormous digital collection, which contains more than 19 million items.
The tour will stop in 60 locations on its voyage, most of which are in small towns and rural locations throughout the Midwestern and Southern states.
Funding for the “Gateway to Knowledge” tour was provided by a philanthropic group known as the James Madison Council, and was the idea of Abby and Emily Rapoport, granddaughters of founding council members Audre and Bernie Rapoport.
For more information about the Library of Congress, the “Gateway to Knowledge” exhibition, or to access the Library of Congress’s trove of digital resources, visit its website at www.loc.gov.