Crying in the Library of Congress

My family are library super-users. We manage holds, checkouts, renewals, and returns with a carefully balanced choreography. We love libraries so much that when my children go to bookstores, my daughter spends an hour reading portions of books, taking note of the titles she wants to check out from the library, even when we’re there for the express purpose of buying a book to take with us while we’re traveling.

When my children learned that on our recent trip to Washington, DC, they would have the chance to visit the largest library in the world, they were thrilled. “How many books do they have?” “Do they have translations?” “Do they have movies?” “Do they have the Warriors series [by Erin Hunter]?” “Can you check things out?”

Most of our questions were answered by looking at the Library of Congress website. 164 million items, including 38.6 million+ books in more than forty languages. They do have movies. They probably do have the Warriors series. You can’t check things out until you’re sixteen, when you can get a card to check things out within the library.

“How do you check things out within a library?” they asked. I assured them that was a question that we could ask our tour guide. Even not being able to check things out, they were excited to look at so many books.

The afternoon we’d set aside for our visit, we set out from our hotel to walk to the library. It took a little longer to walk there than we’d anticipated, and we found ourselves running up Capitol Hill, getting through security at the library, and arriving, breathless, just in time to join the tour group as they were walking up the stairs.

The tour was really cool. The library is incredible, with murals and statues and mosaics on every surface; you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting an allegory. If security would let you bring a cat into the Library of Congress. And if you felt like swinging it.

My children waited patiently throughout our hour-long tour, learning all about the art and the history of the library.

Once my daughter pulled me aside and in a stage whisper said, “It’s been forty-five minutes, and we haven’t even seen any books.”

“Don’t worry,” I assured her. “It’s a library. We’ll get to see books.”

And just a few minutes after, we did get to see books…from the Main Reading Room observation deck a couple of stories up and enclosed in glass. There were rows and rows and rows of books, and my children were practically salivating to get in there with all of them.

And then that was it.

As the tour ended, our tour guide, Harvey, said, “The greatest thing about the Library of Congress is that it’s for everyone! You just need to be sixteen or over and have a valid drivers license or passport to use the reading rooms.”

My daughter asked, “Is there any way someone under sixteen can go into the reading rooms?”

Harvey looked from my son to my daughter and then to me. “No, I’m sorry. Maybe you could ask Congress to make an exception.” Laughter from the rest of the tour group.

It turns out that not only can someone under sixteen not check things out, they can’t even go into the reading rooms. They can’t even, ironically, check books out from the Children’s Literature Center, the contents of which are held in the General Collections, which are only available to those with a readers card, i.e., those over sixteen.

For example, they do, in fact, have Erin Hunter’s books—like her Firestar’s Quest, but you have to request them from the Jefferson or Adams Building Reading Rooms, to which my children do not have access. Screenshot of what you get when you look up Firestar’s Quest in the the LOC online catalog:

My children were not prepared for this.

Crestfallen, we went across the entryway to visit the re-creation of the Jefferson library. There my son looked up at me and began to cry.

“Mommy, he lied.” (“He” meaning Harvey.) “He said that the library is for everyone, but it’s only for people sixteen and older.”

My daughter was more stoic, but still I found myself hugging and comforting my children in the middle of the Library of Congress, surrounded by books they could neither read nor touch.

Luckily there was a Young Readers Center, a room where my kids could sit around reading books that were great for middle-grade readers but lacking for those between the ages of twelve and sixteen. It was like margarine when you’re expecting butter, but it was down an echo-y and very reflective hallway, which they enjoyed. It salvaged the trip for them a little, but the injustice still stings.

At bedtime that night, I told them a story (shamelessly paraphrased from From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler) about two children and their mom who hid out in a bathroom at the Library of Congress and then snuck out after the library was closed to read books all night in the Main Reading Room. We talked a bit more about how unfair it was that they couldn’t use the library.

“I know Harvey was kind of joking,” I said, “but you really could write to Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey when we get home. And to our representatives. And we can ask all of our friends in different states to write to their representatives in Congress and ask them to change the rules.”

“Senators must get a lot of mail,” my daughter said.

“Yes, they do. But if enough people write, the letters will catch their attention. They’ll think there’s a groundswell of public support for allowing people under the age of sixteen to use the Library of Congress.”

“What’s a ‘groundswell of public support’?”

“Time for bed now, my darlings.”

MA to DC Road Trip 2012 Day 4: The Mall

On Wednesday, we visited a different kind of mall: The Mall.

I’d promised the kids a reflecting pool, but it was torn up for renovations. They didn’t seem to mind. They like construction equipment.

We found a duck pond where my daughter herded ducks and my son threw sticks into the water. It was an incredible day. The weather was beautiful, my dad pushed the limits of the parking regulations and got neither ticketed nor booted nor towed, and my kids got a lot of exercise and got to see police horses.

Then my son fell asleep in his baby carrier on my back and we went to the Natural History Museum. My daughter read every single sign in the Mammals section, and I saw the Hope Diamond (just so I could say I’d seen it). We also paid extra to see the butterflies in their pavilion.

Butterfly on my daughter’s hat. She was thrilled to have a passenger!

You can see more photos (including the obligatory monument photos) on my Facebook Page.

MA to DC Road Trip 2012 Day 3: The Pentagon is BORING!

On Tuesday, my dad offered to give us a tour of the Pentagon. They offer guided tours to the public, but since he works there, he could give us a condensed tour better suited to the interests of my 2.5-year-old and my 7-year-old.

I wasn’t sure the largest office building in the world, even shaped like a pentagon, would be interesting to my daughter, but when I presented her the options for that day she jumped up and down and said, “The Pentagon! The Pentagon!”

“It’s the place where Grandpa works,” I clarified, thinking that maybe I’d not been clear enough about what the Pentagon was, exactly. “It’s his office. Like when you visit Daddy’s office?”

“Yeah! I want to visit Grandpa’s office!”

All right then.

We didn’t really need to take the Metro to get there, but the kids really wanted to ride an underground train. So my dad parked at The Fashion Centre at Pentagon City where there’s a Metro stop and we rode the one stop to the Pentagon from there. After passing the security checks and promising not to use our cameras, we were inside. Dad pointed out a bullet hole in one of the doors from the 2010 shooting there. Good times.

The Pentagon really is a huge place. We walked through the center courtyard (the snack bar there was the target of Soviet missiles for years) and it wasn’t readily apparent that we were surrounded by the building.

My dad says it’s the largest no-salute zone in the US military. It’s a pretty practical relaxation of regulations. With so many military personnel in one building, if they were required to stop and salute, they’d never have a chance to get any work done.

Another interesting thing: it’s like a mini-city in itself. There are restaurants (including a nice formal dining room) and a dentist’s office, a hair cutting place, a pharmacy, a florist. There are places to buy sheets and handbags and suits. Dad says it’s set up like that so that the people who work there don’t have to leave during the day, since it’s kind of a pain to get in and out.

And there are twice as many bathrooms as they need for the number of employees there because when it was built in the 1940’s, they had to have double facilities to comply with the segregation laws of the time.

But the most fun part of the Pentagon for my kids? The white board in Grandpa’s office. It was a pretty basic white board, but they got to draw on it with markers in FIVE colors! The United States clearly is the best country in the world.

Second place went to the pretzels in Grandpa’s office.

Everything else my daughter declared in an irritating singsong, “BOR-ING!” And then my son tried to make a break for it and, when I attempted to restrain him, decided to have a tantrum as we were trying to exit the building.

There’s something unsettling about managing a toddler meltdown under the gaze of officers carrying guns.

Since we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the building, the best I could get was the pizza lunch the kids enjoyed back at the mall food court.

I couldn’t find anything I could eat so I enjoyed the snacks I’d brought in my bag.

I love how they hang the American flag the same way they hang the advertisements.

MA to DC Road Trip 2012, Day 2: Turtle Playground!

In Delaware, my children talked me into buying them candy and road maps at a gas station convenience store. I think they could sense that my resistance was weak after our night in the hotel and the adventure of getting them a hotel breakfast in the morning. I’d managed to re-pack the car only by letting them pillage the hotel landscaping and throw rocks into the “pond” (the large puddle that had formed in the parking lot during the previous night’s thunderstorms).

Fifteen minutes from my dad’s house, my son declared that he had to go potty. I scanned the exits to see if there was an easy place to take him to the restroom.

“Goddard Space Flight Center, Employees Only,” read one exit sign.

“NSA, Employees Only” read another.

Apparently this exit was also home to the National Cryptologic Museum, which may have had a restroom we could have used, but the “employees only” and my reluctance to risk a wrong turn into the NSA kept me driving. Luckily, my son was able to wait until we reached Grandpa’s house, even with the couple of wrong turns I took down rather sketchy-looking streets.

After my sister arrived, we all headed off to Friendship Park (also called “Turtle Park”) near American University to let the children run free after the hours on the road. On the map, the park didn’t seem all that far from my dad’s house, but in practice, even a short drive across DC is rather complicated.

I drove in the city twice in the four years that I lived in Northern Virginia. One trip involved me driving on the sidewalk across from the White House and the other ended with me bursting into tears in front of a nice soldier at the gates of Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington National Cemetery is a fine destination, but I’d been trying to find the Library of Congress.

This time when we determined that public transit wouldn’t be a great option, I not-very-subtly roped my father into driving. “We’ll only have to take one car!” I said over my shoulder as I raced to move the kids’ car seats from my car to his before he had a chance to protest.

Even for my dad, who’s lived in the area for the past 20-odd years, traversing the city by auto proved to be an exercise in frustration and served as a reminder that he is, in fact, the man who taught me to swear. Confusing intersections, road construction at every corner, misleading GPS directions, and the legendary (and gratuitous) aggressiveness of drivers inside the Beltway all conspired against us, but we eventually made it to the playground.

One website billed Friendship Park as “one of the best playgrounds in DC.” If it is, that says much more about the other playgrounds than it does about this one. It was nice, but nothing spectacular. It had clean restrooms and ample shade, something that the playgrounds back home lack. It had a fenced play area and plenty of benches for the nannies to hang out while their charges climbed the play structures and fought over the communal toys in the shadow of the large turtle statue.

My son pretended the turtle statue was a stegosaurus and that he was Mr. Conductor on the Dinosaur Train.

“Pet him gently, Mommy,” he instructed.

My daughter spent most of her time conquering her fear of the three firemen’s polls there. By the end she was jumping and sliding like a pro on even the tallest one. Over and over and over (and over) again. Both of my children are fairly persistent, but she’s the clear winner in this category.

A trip to a nearby (and very crowded with surly and distracted people) Whole Foods rounded out our day, and we headed back to Grandpa’s house to make plans for Tuesday.