The Library of Congress is preparing a massive overhaul of the Capitol Hill flagship Thomas Jefferson Building funded through a private-public partnership that aims to “transform the visitor experience” of the library and highlight “treasures” from the massive collection.
Librarian of Congress Carla D. Hayden unveiled renderings of the proposed changes to lawmakers in March, along with a progress report on funding efforts. The project includes an “enhanced orientation experience” to welcome visitors to the library and a youth center.
And an oculus. Lawmakers and librarian alike are excited about the oculus.
“We love saying oculus,” Hayden told House appropriators in March.
The oculus, or a large domed window, will allow visitors to gaze up into the opulent main reading room without disturbing research going on inside.
“I was going to wait until after the committee hearing to look it up,” admitted Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan, chairman of the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee.
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The library researched the best way to give visitors a look into the room that would catch their attention and not cause noisy disruption.
“The idea of still giving people an opportunity to look up and be inspired, especially young people,” was a primary goal, said Hayden.
The oculus will be in the middle of the Thomas Jefferson collection of books, front and center in the library’s new orientation area. That collection is currently housed on the second floor of the library “in kind of a corner,” according to Hayden, so many visitors don’t know about or have the motivation to seek out such an important part of the institution’s lore.
The ambitious project aligns with the agency’s goals to better harness the library’s resources, laid out in a strategic plan last year.
Of the 1.9 million in-person visitors to the library last year, 20 percent were under 18. Hayden, who began her career as a children’s librarian in Chicago, is committed to making the LOC an engaging destination not just for academics, authors and researchers, but also for families visiting Washington.
“How do we inspire young people? We’re concentrating on the ages 7 and up, because that’s an age where they’re very interested in nonfiction and facts,” said Hayden.
The youth center will be made up of “learning labs” that will let young people interact with the library’s collections.
Technology will be a major element of the visitor experience revamp, in line with an “aggressive digitization program” outlined in the agency’s five-year digital strategic plan. The library wants to “throw open the treasure chest” and make public access to its vast collections easier, both in person and online.
Interactives will allow visitors to dive into their interests. Hayden gave the example of a tabletop unit with a map of the United States. A visitor from Washington state could push on their home state, and the library’s resources on that topic would pop up. Some of the materials would be downloadable to smartphones or other devices.
“The whole idea is to turn those visitors into users so that they know about what the library has for them, and when they return home, they’ll be very aware,” said Hayden.
In 2018, the library’s websites, including loc.gov, congress.gov, copyright.gov and the Congressional Research Service site, had 503.1 million page views. The library’s five-year plan includes employing user-centered design to invite digital and physical visitors to explore more offerings.
The treasures gallery planned for the Jefferson building will serve as a physical entree into the vast and diverse collections. Some iconic items will remain in the treasures gallery permanently, including the Gutenberg Bible, but most others will rotate.
“If you make a return visit, you will see different things from the collections,” said Hayden.
Sixty percent of in-person visitors to the library’s Thomas Jefferson Building last year entered through a tunnel from the Capitol Visitor Center. That data shaped how the library developed the plan for how to engage visitors, focusing on first impressions as people enter from two primary routes: the Capitol Visitor Center tunnel and the carriage entrance.
Visitors will enter the library through a hallway spotlighting famous authors, including David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Alex Haley, who used the library to do research for his book “Roots.”
According to Hayden, once underway, the treasures gallery and youth center would take between 18 and 20 months to complete. The orientation center, which includes relocating the Thomas Jefferson collection, could be completed in a 24 month timeline.
The changes to the Thomas Jefferson Building will be funded by a private-public partnership totaling $60 million. Appropriators have committed to providing $40 million, while another $20 million will be matched by private funds raised by the library.
“On the private fundraising side, we have been really encouraged by the interest in patriotic philanthropy,” Hayden said.
The library has verbal commitments for $11 million and is working with a contractor to develop a capital campaign to raise the rest, she told the Senate Rules and Administration committee and House and Senate Appropriations panels in March.
“The $11m in verbal commitments could be solidified very shortly; they are not nebulous,” she assured the Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations subcommittee.
The Library of Congress submitted a $803 million budget request to House appropriators for fiscal 2020, which is a 6.8 percent increase over enacted funding levels.
In fiscal 2018, appropriators provided $10 million for the “visitor experience” plan, $2 million of which was used to create a master plan. Another $8 million in previously approved appropriations will become available to the library when the master plan for the visitor experience project is approved.
Hayden is confident that the projects can be completed within the $60 million budget proposed.
The library’s plans to reach more people are not limited to the physical library buildings or improving digital offerings online.
“As we expand the visitor experience in the Thomas Jefferson Building, we are looking at a traveling exhibit component,” Hayden told lawmakers, something along the lines of the C-SPAN bus or small caravan of vehicles with library assets.
She envisions one on each coast and one in the middle of the country, traveling to communities and bringing library resources and services to people who may not have the chance to visit Washington.
Programs to get library services “out into the hinterlands of the republic,” are a priority for lawmakers, including Legislative Branch subcommittee member Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington state.