User Guide to the Library of Congress

March 16, 2015

The Library of Congress was one of the biggest incentives behind my UCDC application. As my work at the Wilson Center is picking up, I have become a frequent patron of the LOC. A good thing about working in a think tank is the flexibility of your schedule. Unlike my friends who work, say, at the White House or at some Congressional offices, I usually don’t have to be at work from 9 to 5. As a research assistant, my job is mainly to, well, do research. So as long as I finish my work on time and keep my boss happy, I can read books, write memos and interview people from anywhere, usually a nearby library or a cafe. And sometimes, when the task gets tricky, a visit to the LOC is a must-do.

For example, two weeks ago, my boss asked me to check out all articles in the People’s Daily, the official Chinese Communist Party newspaper, in early 1960s that talked about Sino-Japanese relations. Sounds like something that would take me a hundred years, right? Well, that would have been the case without the LOC. Fortunately, though, the LOC has subscriptions to many Chinese-language academic databases which include the digital versions of almost all influential Chinese newspapers. So people may type in keywords, select a time range, filter by sources, and click “search.” Then all is well --- except that, sometimes the database will only show you the title of the article that contained what you want, not the entire thing. But the LOC never stops surprising you. You can then ask a librarian to bring you the microfilm of that particular month’s People’s Daily and read it on a special microfilm scanner/projector, which may look like this:

Apparently, the LOC has the People’s Daily in microfilm of EVERY SINGLE ISSUE from the first copy in 1948 to perhaps, last month. And this, of course, is just a tiny small part of the LOC’s treasures. By the mass quantity of its collections and awe-inspiring design of the buildings, the LOC is definitely THE No.1 library of the world. And I feel quite fortunate to be able to utilize the LOC as a solid brick in building my internship and my own research.

However (yes, we should always expect a “however”), the LOC has many downsides too. After saying so many good words about it, I would like to layout its shortcomings for the convenience of future UCDC folks:

  • You CANNOT check out books from the LOC. Everything has to be used on its premises.
  • They have short hours. Most reading rooms close at 5pm on weekdays and don’t open on weekends (some are open until 930pm M-Th, and open sporadically on weekends). This, combined with point No.1, really forces researchers to plan ahead.
  • If you want to read something, you need to request it from a librarian. Unlike in Main Stacks, you don’t come in and look for books on your own in the LOC. They categorize books and place them in different reading rooms. You check online to see where the book is located, go to that reading room, and get a librarian to help you.
  • Inter-reading-room book requests take FOREVER. If you are in the Asian reading room and need a book from the European reading room, walk over to the latter. If you request for a book that is not in the current room, you’d be miserable (last time it took me 3 hours to get my book).
  • The LOC online catalog is the WORST. I found it more helpful to check on the World Cat/Melvyl, and see if the LOC has a copy of what you want, rather than directly search for it on the LOC catalog. It never gives you any neat results.
  • Getting a reader’s card is a pain. It is the largest library in the world (according to its own website and Quora), meaning that it’s probably a huge bureaucracy too. It has three different buildings and more than a dozen reading rooms. If you have made it this far in my blog post, congratulations because you’ll remember to go straight to Room 140 in the MADISON BUILDING upon your first visit because that’s the only place you can get a reader’s card, the only sacred pass for you to access everything else in the LOC. All three buildings (Madison, Jefferson and Adams) are interconnected through underground tunnels, which is pretty cool, so people don’t have to walk in chilly wind if they happen to be at the wrong building. And there is always a long line at the card service, so be patient about that too.

Finally I’d like to wish all researchers the best of luck in their treasure hunt at the Library of Congress.

headshot of Mengyu Dong

Mengyu Dong is a 4th-year Cal student double majoring in Political Science and History. She is excited at the opportunity to spend a semester in Washington, D.C., and hopes to open her mind to different views on topics that she has already learned about through books and professors at Cal. She is most looking forward to utilizing the knowledge and skills she has gained at Cal to make contributions to the real world. "Thank you to the Matsui Center for this incredible opportunity!"