Research in Library of Congress

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress boasts the largest collection of books in the world and will be of great use to almost any researcher. However, there are some things you should know before visiting the Library (LoC). All of this information can be found on the LoC’s page dedicated to researchers, but here are a few items of special importance.

The Library has three main buildings, as well as off-site storage facilities. Each of the main buildings is named for a U.S. President: Jefferson, Adams, Madison. Clustered near the southeast corner of the Capitol grounds,they are connected by a system of tunnels that come in very handy during hot and cold weather. (More detail below on where you can find each building and what you will find inside.)

Getting There

There are several ways to get to the Library of Congress. The closest Metrorail (subway) stop is Capitol South on the Blue and Orange lines.  The escalators will deposit you near the intersection of 1st and C streets, SE, while the elevator is at the corner of 1st and D. Union Station, hub for Metrorail’s Red Line as well as for intercity bus lines, tour buses, and Amtrak, is located a few blocks north of the LoC. (Coming soon: tips on transportation with more information on getting to DC by air, bus, and rail and Metrobus, Metrorail, Capital Bikeshare, taxis, and car services for getting around the area once you’re here.)

The Madison Building is the large modern white marble building on the right hand side as you walk up 1st St. toward Independence Ave. from Capitol South. The 32 and 36 Metro buses that travel from far NW to far SE  stop right in front of the Madison Building. Capital Bikeshare has stations within a short walk of the Library buildings.  The address of the Library of Congress is 101 Independence Avenue, SE Washington, D.C. 20540.

If money is no object, or until you get a feel for how to get around town by public transportation, give this to any taxi driver or car service or enter it into a GPS and you will find your way there easily.  Note that as you pass beyond the Madison Building, what has been Independence Ave. becomes Pennsylvania Ave. Independence veers north and runs parallel to Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is lined with restaurants, taverns, and other small businesses that serve the Capitol Hill community. It is home to several banks with convenient ATMs.

Prepare In Advance

Look up what you need in the LoC before you arrive. (See how below.)  The last thing you want to have happen is to show up only to be disappointed that the book you need is not currently available, the exhibit is closed, or the building is under renovation. Take the time to plan your visit.  Be sure and check out the online catalog so you can see what exactly the library has to offer and to ensure your visit there will be worthwhile. Note that some divisions have their own online catalogs, reachable from the main catalog page.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed,a 90-minute Research Orientation to the Library of Congress class is offered throughout the year. It is specifically for people who have not done research in the Library before, but even veterans can pick up useful tips and learn of new features and policies. You should register in advance, either online or by phone. While you’re on the Research Orientation page, be sure to look at the other orientations offered. The Digital Reference Section’s monthly webinar may be especially useful.

Reader Identification Card

In order to conduct any research at the LoC  you will need to obtain a Reader Identification Card, often called a “reader’s card” for short. This card will gain you entrance to the reading rooms and enable you to request items in person and online. To register for a reader’s card you will need to go to Madison Building, Room LM 140. Registration does not take place in the main reading room, so be sure to look at the map and layout of the LoC before heading out. You may pre-register online to save time but you still must show up and present a valid form of photo identification to complete the process. If you already possess a card be sure and double-check the expiration date as most cards expire after two years and you must re-register the card in person.


Here are the library hours so you can plan ahead. Be sure to look at the hours of all the reading rooms you intend to visit. They do differ. In general, the library is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The Main Reading Room and the Microform and Electronic Resources Center are open until 9:30 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights. A very few reading rooms also keep those hours. The Microform and Electronic Resources Center offers free access to scores of online information sources that either are not available elsewhere or are only available at considerable cost.

Also, be aware that security in these buildings is relatively similar to what you would experience at an airport. You and anything you have with you will have to pass through a scanner. You may bring bags, backpacks, cases, purses, coats, and the like into the Library’s exhibit areas, but you cannot bring them into the reading rooms. The Library provides cloakrooms where you can leave them without charge. Laptops and cameras are allowed in most reading rooms, but check individual webpages to be sure. Some reading rooms also have free lockers. When you depart one of the buildings, expect to have your bag, backpack,  or purse manually inspected.

The Thomas Jefferson Building (labelled ‘LJ’) is the original structure of the Library of Congress and houses the Main Reading Room.  During your stay you may wish to take a break to wander the building and view its elaborate decor. Before you arrive, you may wish to take an online tour that focuses on the building’s artwork. The Jefferson Building has several entrances, including two on 1st Street, SE, which runs between it and the Capitol grounds, and one on 2nd Street, SE. Check out the LoC website for advice about the best one to use at the time of your visit. Note that this may vary according to the day of the week. Once you have acquired your Reader Identification Card, you may be allowed access to an entrance reserved for researchers and staff, but this entrance recently has been closed because of budget cuts. The Jefferson Building has a large gift shop, worth a visit before you leave town. You may also wish to stop by early in your stay to check out its collection of guidebooks to the DC area’s many attractions.

The James Madison Building (labelled ‘LM’) is the youngest of the three buildings.  It hosts exhibits demonstrating the vast wealth of resources and history the LoC has to offer.  It’s where you’ll find LM 140, the office where you’ll get your Reader Identification Card, as well as a large cafeteria-style dining room on the 6th floor and a coffee shop on the ground floor, both open to the public, though sometimes restricted at certain hours.  The Madison Building also houses the Law Library and several important reading rooms, including some of the Special Format Collections: Manuscript, Prints & Photographs, Motion Pictures & Television, Recorded Sound, Newspaper & Current Periodical, and Geography & Map.  It has two entrances,  the main one on Independence Ave., SE between 1st and 2nd streets, and the back one near the corner of 1st and C streets, not far from the Capitol South station.

The John Adams Building (labelled ‘LA’) is one of several important federal buildings built during the 1930s. It houses the Science and Business Reading Room on the 5th floor, along with the Science Reference Service, the Business Reference Service, and the Federal Research Division. On the first floor is another cafeteria. Though it has doors on 3rd St., SE and 2nd St., SE, only the 2nd St. doors, across from the Jefferson Building, are open to the public. However, the Adams Building is easily accessible via tunnels from the Jefferson and Madison Buildings. Keep an eye out for its Art Deco details, and when you have time, stop in at its neighbor just to the north, the Folger Shakespeare Library, one of Washington’s outstanding private research facilities.

Advance Reserve Service

The Advance Reserve Service the LoC offers enables visitors outside of DC to have their materials ready upon arriving at the LoC. However, this is limited to those who have a readers card already. There is also an overnight reserve service so you can have the books you need the next day ready and waiting after you have established yourself in D.C. and as a frequent user of the Library’s services.

Special Format Collections

The following are special format collections that the LoC houses throughout its several buildings. Follow the links to learn more about each individual room, where it can be found, the protocols relating to research there, and its hours.

American Folklife Center

Geography and Map



Motion Picture and Television

Performing Arts

Prints and Photographs

Rare Book and Special Collections

Recorded Sound Reference Center

Technical Reports and Standards

Staff of these specialized units are experts in their holdings. Take advantage of their expertise and share your own. They may be able to connect you with other researchers who will become valued colleagues.

Where to Eat and Where to Stay

There are a variety of food selections available at the cafeteria located on the 6th floor of the Madison Building, not to mention an excellent view. The ground floor coffee shop offers snacks if you’d rather not leave the Library complex. If you want some fresh air, there are a number of places to grab a bite to eat within walking distance of any building of the LoC. Head east along Pennsylvania Avenue from 2nd St., SE to the Eastern Market station on Metro’s Blue and Orange lines between 7th and 8th streets, SE. If you’re feeling adventurous, head north on 7th Street to Eastern Market itself, or south on 8th to the restaurant row around the Marine Barracks. You’ll find an abundance of places capable of satisfying your hunger.

One advantage of dining within the Library itself is that most of your fellow patrons will be other researchers and Library staff. Feel free to strike up a conversation. Even if those you meet are researching topics very different from your own, they may have ideas for you about negotiating the reading rooms, finding places to stay, lesser known research venues, and things to do when the Library is closed.

The area close to the Library of Congress is primarily single-family residential. There is relatively little short-term commercial housing, though a number of bed-and-breakfasts and furnished short-term apartments are spread across the Hill within easy walking distance of the Library. Many can be found with a Google search or by consulting Craigslist. For stays of a few days to a few weeks, apartments, houses, and furnished rooms can also be found through online services such as VRBO, Home Away, and airbnb. Generally, the closer to the Capitol, the more expensive lodging will be. Since the Capitol South (Blue and Orange Line) and Union Station (Red Line) Metro Stations are close to the Library, other inexpensive housing throughout the area located close to Metro may be a suitable alternative.

Special Activities

Consider taking advantage of the many activities sponsored by the Library’s divisions. Announcements of lunch-time, afternoon, and evening lectures, concerts, and other presentations are posted in and around elevators and at the entrances to the reading rooms and on the Library’s main website, as are exhibits organized by Library staff. These are great opportunities to meet other scholars and to take an occasional break from  your own research. Be sure to check out the events hosted by the NHC’s friends in the the Library’s Kluge Center.