One of the must-see stops for Jana Maghribi and her parents on their first pandemic plane trip outside the Atlanta area was the Library of Congress, and she made sure they got in.
“It was pretty hard to get [tickets],” said Maghribi, 25, explaining that once she discovered the library was allowing limited attendance while they would be in Washington, she spent a lot of time on the website hitting refresh.
“I was so happy to get in,” she said of the soft opening last week.
Maghribi, who snapped photos of the richly furnished interior of the library’s Thomas Jefferson Building, was one of the first members of the public to lay eyes on the building’s reading room, Gutenberg Bible exhibit and gift shop sit wasince the pandemic began.
Their admittance signifies a new stage in the reopening of the Capitol complex. The Library of Congress is the first part of the complex to welcome back tourists indoors, inviting members of the public to get tickets and see exhibits in the Jefferson Building three days each week, starting this Thursday.
Fencing surrounding the Capitol was removed over the weekend, making the grounds feel more open than they have for months. But it’s not clear when the Capitol itself will reopen for public tours. Because of both pandemic-related health and post-Jan. 6 security concerns, it may be a while longer.
Public access is a “priority,” said a Senate Rules Committee spokesperson, and reopening “should occur as soon as it is safe to do so.”
“It is the job of the Capitol Police Board, consulting with the Office of the Attending Physician and the Capitol Police, to ensure that the Capitol can reopen to the public while maintaining the health and safety of members, employees, and visitors,” the spokesperson said.
Planning to reopen
Whether they are vaccinated or not, visitors to the library must wear masks and get tickets online before they arrive. People can reserve up to six passes, available on a rolling basis 30 days out, for timed entry between the hours of 10 a.m and 4 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays or Saturdays.
The decision to allow visitors back was part of a monthslong process.
“There were things big and small that needed to go into this, and we really wanted the decisions to be provided by our public health officer,” said April Slayton, the library’s communications director.
The library never totally shut down — it couldn’t.
The repository — with nearly 170 million items in its collections, ranging from old newspapers and films to the contents of Abraham Lincoln’s pockets on the night he was assassinated — receives a daily deluge of sometimes thousands of items in the mail.
Staff had to be there to collect and store deliveries, and rooms containing delicate artifacts needed careful monitoring for temperature and humidity.
One of the LOC’s core duties — as the research arm for Congress through services like the Congressional Research Service and Law Library — shifted to mostly remote work.
Researchers who work with physical documents were able to keep digitization projects going, by heading to the office to pick up boxes of documents and bringing them home to scan and catalog.
“It was sort of a drive-thru library digitization,” Slayton said.
An empty building
The feeling of being in the cavernous spaces in the buildings that make up the library — sometimes barely seeing another person — was eerie, said Wanda Whitney, head of history and genealogy for the library’s Researcher and Reference Services Division.
“It was weird,” she said. “It definitely wasn’t normal.”
Both she and Dennis Clark, chief of the same division, described days alone among the books.
Use of their online “Ask a Librarian” service shot up during the pandemic, as people suddenly had a lot of time to wonder. They got all manner of questions, from someone trying to find a book cover from childhood to someone looking for news articles about a relative who died in a fire.
“It is literally for anybody in the country to use,” Clark said.
Starting in September, researchers who needed something from the collection could call the reading rooms. Sometimes librarians pointed them to resources online or scanned documents to send them. Failing that, they could make a special case to come in person.
When the library announced it would be gradually opening some of its reading rooms to registered researchers, Clark said the phones started “ringing off the hook” as people tried to get appointments.
And when people began to return to the building, Clark said it felt like the first day of school.
Some of the changes the library was forced to make, like adding digital components to events and making even more collections available online, are probably here to stay, Whitney said.
“We learned a lot about ourselves and what we were able to do remotely,” she said. “People got creative, and that is likely to continue.”