Writing On The Walls Of The Nation's Library

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The Library of Congress houses the nation's vast collection of books, but those words aren't the only ones in the building worth reading.

The white marble structure is a cathedral to the written word. Lofty inscriptions adorn the great stone columns, murals of classical figures and twining vines that decorate the Great Hall.

"Words are also actions, and actions a kind of words," one reads.

"In books lies the soul of the whole past time," says another.

All the inscriptions go together, says historian John Cole, author of On These Walls: Inscriptions and Quotations in the Library of Congress. Cole, who has spent more than four decades in the building, says it took him years to realize the message behind the quotations.

At the main entrance of the Library, Cole points out the names of famous writers that adorn the ceiling. The names were chosen by one of President Lincoln's librarians of Congress, Ainsworth Rand Spofford.

"Mr. Spofford felt that this was the 'book palace' of the American people," Cole says. "That's what he called it."

At the very top of the domed ceiling are European writers such as Dante, Sir Francis Bacon and Aristotle. Lower down, American writers like James Fenimore Cooper and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow start to appear.

Moving through a labyrinth of quiet, wood-paneled reading rooms, Cole heads for a tight, winding staircase tucked into the stacks. The top of the stairway opens out into a roomy balcony with a clear view of the Great Hall ceiling.

Eight large inscriptions are set around the base of the dome, each dedicated to one of eight fields of knowledge: religion, philosophy, science, law, commerce, art, history and poetry. The Great Hall represents a coming of age, Cole says, not just architecturally, but for America.

"When this building opened in 1897," Cole says, "people couldn't believe that America had out-Europed Europe.

"There are very few buildings that really aspire in such a way to the noble side of life," he adds. Collectively, the inscriptions tell us that "if this country can be an educated country, through books and the accumulation of other knowledge, then it will be a better country. It's a very optimistic message."

Back down the dizzying staircase, through the stacks and into the upstairs gallery of the Great Hall, there are more quotations:

"Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge the wing where with we fly to heaven."

"Books must follow sciences, and not sciences books."

Cole says his favorite is from the 17th century English poet Edward Young:

"Too low they build who build beneath the stars."

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