01.17.16: Library of Congress


Reading room in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 


Technical information

Sept. 24, 2014,
3:47 p.m.

38°53’19” N,
77°0'19" W
(Show in Google Maps)

Canon EOS 7D

Canon EF-S 10-22 f/3.5-4.5 (10mm)


1/60th second


This photo of the Main Reading Room in the Library of Congress is one of my favorites from the hundreds of Washington, D.C., shots in my collection. But I may have broken the Library of Congress rules to get the photo. 

Or maybe I didn’t. 

I honestly don’t know.

Here’s my story:

The Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress is one of my favorite buildings in Washington, D.C. The interior of the building is impressive, especially to someone carrying a camera. It is decorated with murals and paintings, filled with marble steps and halls with carved hardwoods, all beneath a stained glass dome.

And the Library’s Main Reading Room is the most impressive room in the building. Author Dan Brown, in his novel “The Lost Symbol,” describes the Main Reading Room as the most beautiful room in Washington, D.C. 

Any tourist has access to the Great Hall of the Library of Congress and can see the ornate design of the building. The Main Reading Room, though, is a different matter. Access requires a researcher card, which is easy to obtain, but photography is prohibited inside the room except for two days a year (President’s Day in February and Columbus Day in October) when the Library hosts open houses.

I grabbed this photo through thick security glass from the Main Reading Room’s overlook, which is open to tourists on most days and, on this day, was filled with tourists snapping photos on their smartphones. The only way to capture the scale and detail of the room with my camera is to use an extreme wide angle zoom at the widest setting (10 millimeters, which is nearly fisheye and beyond the capabilities of a smartphone). Even at that I was unable to include the top of the dome in the shot without tilting up and losing the circular layout of tables on the floor. The interior height of the room, from floor to the top of the dome, is 160 feet and the overlook hangs over the room (the bar visible at the bottom of the photo is the ledge under the security glass, which demonstrates how close the overlook is to the center of the room).

I liked what I saw through the viewfinder. The shapes, the colors, the detail and scale all worked to create a visually pleasing image. But I got a surprise when I returned home and visited the Library of Congress’ web site for information on the Main Reading Room. That’s when I found this statement: “Photography is permitted, EXCEPT at the Bibles, in the Main Reading Room overlook, and in the exhibitions."

No photography from the overlook? Had I broken the rules to get the photo? I was surrounded by people with smartphones taking photos through the glass. I happened to be using better equipment, which created a better photo. And tour guides, as well as security personnel, were in the overlook. No one attempted to prevent visitors from taking photos. I didn’t see any “no photography” signs. A quick Google search found hundreds of photos from the overlook (mostly smartphone snapshots) posted online.

So maybe it’s a rule that is impossible to enforce today when everyone has a camera in their pocket.

The Jefferson building of the Library of Congress, located on First Street SE between Independence Avenue and East Capitol Street (behind the U.S. Capitol and beside the Supreme Court), was known simply as the Library of Congress Building when it was first opened in 1897 until it was renamed for Thomas Jefferson in 1980.

It’s worth including on your itinerary for any visit to Washington, D.C.

Each week I will post a photo from my collection with an explanation of how I got the shot. Previous photos of the week are in the archives.