Sunday, April 19, 2009

hapax legomenon

Everyone I've spoken to about DC has put the Library of Congress on top of the list, so off I went. The LOC is now in three buildings, the main one being the impossible to miss Thomas Jefferson temple behind the Capitol. After the Brits burned the Capitol during the War of 1812, toasting the existing library, Jefferson sold his library to Congress to start the new collection. You can get there via an underground tunnel from the other buildings. The tunnel reminded me of every university science building I've been in. My degree isn't in science, but I grew up hanging around my parents' labs, playing with pipettes, parafilm, and lab mice. Coming in through either the Adams or Madison building and taking the tunnel lets you skip the line at the front of the Jefferson building, and also makes for some fun wandering around being minorly lost and checking out the various departments. There's even a machine shop, and a mason shop.

The visitor attractions of the Jefferson building are the building itself, which is liberally decorated inside with marble carvings, mosaics, and painting, all celebrating knowledge and education, and the good things that come out of those, and various exhibitions. Since it's the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, there's an exhibit of his life and letters, to describe it in a vague manner. Included are many manuscripts and letters penned by the historically famous, so fans of antiquated, heavily right-slanting penmanship can geek out, including a letter by an eleven-year-old girl suggesting that he would get more votes if he grew a beard. Which he did, shortly thereafter.

Being exhibitions in a library, they all include heavy doses of printed matter, so it's a lot to take in. I don't recommend doing it in one shot. I spend most of my time in the Lincoln exhibit, and just cruised through the others. Other heavy hitters from the various collections are Martin Waldseemüller's map from 1507, which is the first map upon which the word America appears, on a very un-America looking continent; it's more of a coastline. And, one of the Gutenberg bibles, displayed opposite a giant handwritten bible from Mainz that took over a year to copy. I suppose Gutenberg's is more historically significant, but the hand-scribed one is prettier.

The LOC employs at least a couple of cheeky old men in various tourist relations positions. The first was my docent tour guide and amateur comedian, Gene. Gene went on at enthusiastic length extolling the virtues and beauty of the building, the institution, and its holdings, drawing attention to small details in the endless embellishment, as well as the many luscious ladies bedecking the walls and lunettes. He went into so much detail that the guards had to kick us out of the reading room (which is closed to other individual tourists and groups when one group has entered), almost to the point of yelling at him, despite repeated instructions to the tourists to keep our voices down. Then there was Ray, who was staffing the info desk in the Adams (or was it the Madison?) building, where I surfaced after a return wander in the tunnels. Ray attended Berkeley in the sixties and regaled me with stories of protests, student arrests, tear gas, and how you couldn't lie down on the lawns back then because they were covered in dog poo because all the female students owned dogs but didn't pick up after their pooches. He pulled out a map and started circling points of interest; when I told him I had already been to the Eastern Market, he said, "Oh, you're a smart little rat." Which isn't far from the truth, since I am a Rat, in the Chinese lunar cycle. Quite proud of it, too. I'm very glad that I decided to stop at Ray's info desk, even though I was on my way out, because if I hadn't, I wouldn't have scored my very own Library of Congress reader card:

Unless you're way up the government food chain, you can't actually borrow anything from the LOC, but you can go in to read and research whatever. Anyone over 16 with an ID can get one. After the tour I had asked Gene about it, but he threw a big cold wet blanket all over that, telling me that "you can't just go get one." Actually, yes, you can. Mid-conversation with Ray, he asked if I had gotten my reader card yet, wrinkled his nose at what Gene had told me, and told me to go get my card. I was a little concerned that I would have to prove that I was researching something, anything, but Ray assured me that it would be a breeze. And it was. Observe the process:

Found the Reader Card Registration and Cloak Room room. Someone very very bored was sitting at the Step 1 desk.

"Hi, I'd like to register for a reader card."
"Are you researching?"
"Have you had a reader card before?"
"I need to see your ID." (Driver's license handed over). "Please proceed to the computers at Step 2, and then to Step 3."

Five minutes later - one Library of Congress reader card in hand. There was a gentlemen on the way out, at Step 4, who offers research and catalogue help, but he snagged the girl who was walking out just steps ahead of me, so I skirted by without having to convince anyone that I was a scholar. I triumphantly showed my trophy to Ray, and felt rather good about myself. After I graduated from Berkeley, I paid ~$500 (in installments) to join the alumni association. It was a fairly exorbitant fee at the time, for my dinky bank account, but it got me two things - unceasing junk mail from UCB asking for money and a library card to the entire University of California system. With both of these in hand, I feel invincible in my quest for knowledge.

After spending the rest of the afternoon in a cafe, I spent a few hours after dark strolling around the WWII Memorial, Reflecting Pool, Lincoln Memorial, and Vietnam Memorial. At 10pm there were still throngs of people, including lots of kiddies up way past their bedtime, The white marble of the bigger monuments lit up is striking against the night sky, and the Vietnam Memorial is peaceful and ghostly, all black stone bathed in low light. Everyone seemed happy to be there, enjoying a warm day cooling down to a brisk night, including one little girl jumping towards the LM and chanting "Lincoln, Lincoln, Lincoln!" Lincoln is big in this town right now. Almost every museum has some exhibit about him, and everywhere you look he's looking back at you from a poster.

And in closing - a hapax legomenon is a word that appears only once in a language. That's at least one thing I remember from medieval French literature classes because I've always thought it was a very cool term. The English example offered at the time was "tuffet" (Little Miss Muffet's), but I don't think that's true. Now with my swanky new reader card, I should have no problem finding the materials to research that.

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