Writing On The Walls Of The Nation's Library The Library of Congress is a cathedral to the written word. The white marble building may hold the nation's collection of books, but those aren't the only words in the building worth reading.

Writing On The Walls Of The Nation's Library

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/96049292/97608429" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Welcome back to All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. On Capitol Hill here in Washington, next to the Supreme Court and across from the Capitol Dome, stands a white marble building that holds the nation's collection of books, the Library of Congress.

Walking into the Great Hall stone columns, murals of classical figures and twining vines, it is a cathedral to the written word. And I'm here to talk about words, not in the books, but in quotations that are painted on the library's walls. Just look up. Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words.

Mr. JOHN COLE (Historian, Library of Congress): In books lies the soul of the whole past time.

SEABROOK: Historian John Cole has spent more than four decades in this building. And he has written a book called "On These Walls: Inscriptions and Quotations in the Library of Congress." Why focus on the inscriptions in the building rather than, say, the carvings or the art work or the tile or the - you know, there's so many beautiful things.

Mr. COLE: Well, they all go together, and it took me a number of years to realize that. The sharing of a universal collection of knowledge and the glorifying of the importance of education and knowledge, in many ways, it's the most explicitly expressed in the quotations which we will see.


Mr. COLE: They are about lofty ideals, about education, and mostly about books and reading.

SEABROOK: We're standing here, not just because it's the main entrance, and it's so beautiful, but because this is where you chose to start your tour that you're giving us of the inscriptions on the walls of Library of Congress.

Mr. COLE: Correct.

SEABROOK: What's here? What are we seeing?

Mr. COLE: First, you see guilt, gold letters of the Library of Congress, but above it, you have the summary of the major construction engineers and the names of the architects.

SEABROOK: General Thomas Lincoln Casey, chief architect, and others are immortalized here. They constructed this masterpiece of a building. But the inscriptions, they were largely chosen by one of President Lincoln's librarians of Congress, Ainsworth Rand Spofford.

Mr. COLE: Above us are these wonderful names of writers and names of figures that exemplify the fact that Mr. Spofford felt that this was a book palace of the American people. That's what he called it. Can I show a few words?

SEABROOK: Yes, please.

Mr. COLE: If you look all the way up to the top, you're going to see - in the ceiling, you're going to see names of writers, and these are all European writers, it turns out.

SEABROOK: Dante, Bacon, and Aristotle.

Mr. COLE: All wonderful writers from the European tradition. You come down to the second level. Oops, there's our first American, James Fenimore Cooper.


Mr. COLE: You come over here to this side. Oops, there's a second American, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And so slowly the idea of, not only is this a book palace and a palace for writers, but, in fact, they're starting to honor America along with the classics. And that also is done largely through the words of the building and through the inscriptions and the quotations.

SEABROOK: From the Great Hall, Cole leads me through a labyrinth of quiet wood-paneled reading rooms to a tight, winding staircase tucked into the stacks. We climb all the way to the top and out into a lofty open balcony. We have to be quiet because it's a library.

Mr. COLE: Not really.


Mr. COLE: No we won't - they can't really hear us very well, we're so far up.

SEABROOK: Yeah. OK. We just climbed all those stairs to come to the top of the gallery in the main Library of Congress reading room. It is domed in the top and inscriptions here.

Mr. COLE: Yes, very important inscriptions here. Stop and look carefully. You'll see large inscriptions, eight of them, coming around the circle of the main reading room's dome. What the library was able to do is to divide the universality of knowledge into eight fields, which are symbolized in this room.

SEABROOK: Which are the fields?

Mr. COLE: The fields are philosophy, religion - I'll point to them - science, law, commerce interestingly enough, and art, history, and poetry.

SEABROOK: It sounds like a good way to split up life into those eight.

Mr. COLE: Well, we've done more than split life. We've actually given each of them two symbolic figures on either side. And the symbolic figures, for example, for poetry are Shakespeare and Homer, so there are bronze busts of Shakespeare and Homer on either side of the poetry pillar. On top of the pillar is a quotation which was chosen by the president of Harvard at the time, Charles Eliot.

SEABROOK: What does it say?

Mr. COLE: Hither as to their foundation, other stars repairing, in their golden urns draw light. From Milton, "Paradise Lost." And another one...

SEABROOK: I like this one over here. This one, we taste the spices of Arabia, yet never feel the scorching sun which brings them forth.

Mr. COLE: It's Dudley North in East India Trade. And the statue is commerce, and the two figures are Columbus and Fulton.

SEABROOK: Do you have a favorite among these?

Mr. COLE: I like the Americans.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. COLE: Sure. Just off the top of my head.

SEABROOK: Why do you like the Americans?

Mr. COLE: I like the idea that this building represents kind of a coming of age architecturally for our country, and that it was seen so by Congress and by the American people because, when this building opened in 1897, it was celebrated. People couldn't believe that America had out Europed Europe in that sense and took great pride in it.

SEABROOK: Yeah, it's almost - it almost hits you over the head that what they were trying to do was say, look, see, we can join the nations of classical import in literature and science and law. Back down the dizzying staircase, through the stacks, into the upstairs gallery of the Great Hall. It is lined with quotations. Ignorance is the curse of God, knowledge the wing where with we fly to heaven.

Mr. COLE: How about books must follow sciences, and not sciences books. But this is my favorite over here.

SEABROOK: Ooh, let's see.

Mr. COLE: My favorite is from the English poet, about the 17th century, named Mr. Young - Edward Young, too low they build who build beneath the stars.

SEABROOK: So, reach high.

Mr. COLE: Good. Reach higher.

SEABROOK: Reach high.

Mr. COLE: There are very few buildings that, you know, really aspire in such a way to the noble side of life and that getting an education and learning, you know, will make a difference, and that if this country can be an educated country through books and accumulation of other knowledge, then it will be a better country. It's a very optimistic message.

SEABROOK: John Cole is a historian at the Library of Congress. His book is called "On These Walls: Inscriptions and Quotations in the Library of Congress." You can watch a video of the places we visited on our tour. It's on the walls of our website, npr.org

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.