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Planning Your Visit

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Dressed for a formal visit, Chinatown, San Francisco. Arnold Genthe. Between 1896 and 1906. Prints and Photographs Division. LC-G403-BN-0387
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The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world. Its size, closed stacks, many reading rooms, and extensive multiformat collections can confuse even the most experienced researcher. To make the best use of your time at the Library and with its marvelous collections, you should take several steps before arriving.

Begin with the Library's Web Site

You can begin planning your research strategy ahead of time by visiting the Library of Congress Web site, where you will find links on the home page to the American Memory Web site, the Library of Congress Online Catalog, information about individual reading rooms or reference centers, and other valuable Library sites.

  • Read Especially for Researchers: All new visitors are urged to consult Especially for Researchers. On this page you will find links to guidelines and essential information for anyone preparing to do research at the Library of Congress—full details on hours of operation, collection overviews, location of reading rooms, security procedures, orientation classes, reader registration, and much more.
  • Review Content on Home Pages of Individual Reading Rooms: From the home pages of individual reading rooms and research centers, you can find further information about hours and services; online finding aids; illustrated guides for some special collections; links to specialized reference tools, databases, and catalogs; and links to other relevant Web resources. Not all Library collections are stored onsite. It is recommended that before arriving you call or write the appropriate division to inform them about your project and, where applicable, to schedule the retrieval of any materials needed from offsite storage. See individual reading room pages for further details. These advance preparations will help you to make the most efficient use of your time at the Library.
  • Consult Online Catalogs and Finding Aids: You can search for specific items or items in various subject areas through the Library's online catalogs, which are accessible from any computer with Internet access. The three principal online catalogs are:

    • Library of Congress Online Catalog - Contains records for most books and periodicals as well as for many other formats such as manuscripts, graphics, sound recordings, microform materials, and maps

    • Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC) - Contains records for photographs, prints and other pictorial material, a significant proportion of which are not found through the Library of Congress Online Catalog; digital images accompany many records
    • Sound Online Inventory Catalog (SONIC) - Contains records for more than 375,000 sound recordings; little overlap with the Library of Congress Online Catalog

    For a fuller explanation of the scope of these online catalogs and tips on the most effective ways to search them (e.g., subject headings, call numbers), see Searching LC Catalogs. Finding aids to some collections can be found on the home pages of individual reading rooms as well as through links in some catalog records. The online catalogs and aids, however, do not contain records for all materials held by the Library, nor do they always offer item-level information. Further exploration after you arrive at the Library will always be necessary.
  • Explore American Memory: The Library is in the process of digitizing selected items in its collections, many relating to American women. You can view these items on the Library's American Memory site where you will find dozens of multimedia collections—with new ones being added regularly—containing digitized documents, photographs, sound recordings, motion pictures, and text from the Library's Americana collections. You may find that items important for your research are reproduced online. For a discussion of how to search American Memory effectively for material by and about women, see Searching American Memory.

  • Look at Other Parts of the Library's Web Site: Links on the Library's home page lead to the following important parts of the Library's Web site:

For a quick list of links to the Library's Web sites and to browse the Web site index: <>


Prepare at Your Local Libraries

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Public library, Brooklyn, N.Y., Bedford Branch, delivery room. ca. 1900. Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USZ62-15717
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Resources at your local public or university libraries can help you plan your visit. Be sure to consult the following sources:

  • Bibliographies and Periodical Indexes: Although your local library will not hold as extensive a collection of books and periodicals as the Library of Congress, it will have the tools, such as bibliographies and periodical indexes, to help you compile an initial list of works you want to examine when you come to the Library of Congress.
  • Specialized Guides: Also available at libraries around the country are three guides issued by the Library of Congress that describe its holdings for the study of African Americans, Native Americans, and American women. These will help you to select in advance materials to examine when you visit the Library. They should be used in conjunction with this Web site, which is an online version of the American women's history guide.

    • The African-American Mosaic: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History and Culture (Washington: Library of Congress, 1993; Z1361.N39 L47 1993)
    • Many Nations: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Indian and Alaska Native Peoples of the United States (Washington: Library of Congress, 1996; Z1209.2.U5 L53 1996)
    • American Women: A Library of Congress Guide for the Study of Women's History and Culture in the United States (Washington: Library of Congress, 2001; Z7164.U5 A47 2001)

  • Secondary Sources: You can also prepare for your visit by examining notes and illustration credits in secondary sources and collecting names of relevant individuals, organizations, places, and dates. This preliminary gathering of background information is especially important for formats (such as photographs, motion pictures, sound recordings, or maps) that may have limited subject access.
It is important to remember that the Library of Congress is not always the best place for certain kinds of inquiry. Some searches are faster and easier at a local public or university library. For example, to read a 1993 issue of Working Woman at a public library, you usually walk straight to the shelf and locate the magazine in a few minutes. At the Library of Congress, you must determine the call number, submit a call slip, and wait forty-five to ninety minutes for the issue to be brought from the stacks to a reading room in either the Thomas Jefferson or the John Adams Buildings. If you also want to see the most recent issue of the same magazine, you must go to the Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room in the James Madison Memorial Building.

Arriving at the Library of Congress

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Small wagon, pulled by dog team, with advertisement poster: "We pull for the Yukon Girl" with Library of Congress Jefferson Building in background. Between 1850 and 1900. Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USZ62-94993
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When coming to the Library for the first time to do research, your first step is to obtain a Library-issued reader identification card. Once you have the card, you can begin following your research strategy. If you wish to research published books and periodical sources in American women's history, the Thomas Jefferson Building is the best place to begin. If you know in advance that the specific items you need must be consulted in the Library's specialized reading rooms, you can go straight to the reading room that houses those materials. You may also wish to attend a research orientation class that is designed as a basic introduction for researchers using Library of Congress collections and resources.

In the Jefferson Building you will find the staffed Computer Catalog Center, the Main Card Catalog, the large Main Reading Room reference collection, and reference librarians. These librarians will help you access the General Collections—which include most books and bound periodicals published after 1800. They can also guide you to the reference staff of other reading rooms for further assistance. The Main Reading Room librarians include specialists in women's studies, American history, African American studies, literature, religion, fine arts, and more.

Other reading rooms also have specialists who can assist with questions you may have on specific topics. For example, the Law Library has legal specialists and the Prints and Photographs Division has specialists for formats such as posters and cartoons and also for certain subjects, such as Native Americans and the West. It is often advisable to discuss your research project with the appropriate expert in a specific reading room. Appointments can be made for in-depth advice.

For many research questions the Library of Congress and its phenomenal collections are invaluable. To make the fullest use of the multiformat collections, you may need to visit several reading rooms, often in different buildings. Even collections that arrive at the Library as a unit may be split among several reading rooms. For example, Clare Boothe Luce's personal papers are in the Manuscript Division; most of her photographs went to the Prints and Photographs Division; and her motion picture films and sound recordings are held by the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. It is good to ask reference librarians if other reading rooms may hold materials from the collection you are using.

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