The title of Alice Walker’s book, THE TEMPLE OF MY FAMILIAR, has been running through my head since Wednesday when I finally visited the Library of Congress, not because the Walker book has anything to do with the library (except I’m sure a copy is housed in the vast stacks) but because the building, named the Thomas Jefferson Building in 1980, feels like a temple to me. A temple of learning. A temple of collective knowledge. A temple of books.
Books As Familiars
According to Wikipedia, a “familiar” is the name given to spirit helpers, often taking the guise of animals, in the practice of witchcraft or other magical practices. If I have any sort of familiars, they take quite a different form than the usual cats or owls or toads.
My familiars are books.
Stephen King, in his book ON WRITING, speaks of writing as the only real form of magic he knows. A writer has a picture in his mind. He puts down words on paper. A reader picks up the book and voila! A picture forms in the reader’s mind. The book (or article, letter, Facebook post, text message) is the vehicle the magic uses to pass knowledge or ideas or images from one person to another without actually speaking. Writing is magic. Books, familiars.
History of the Library
So how did this temple to learning come to be? The library was established in 1800 as a resource for Congress and was housed in the Capitol building. It was destroyed (burned, of course. Why is it that books, like witches or heretics, are always being burned?) by British troops in 1814. At that time, Thomas Jefferson had one of the largest, most comprehensive personal libraries in America, a collection he’d been gathering for fifty years. He offered his library to Congress, arguing for the inclusion of many types of literature, languages, and ideas that went beyond the usual legislative materials. Congress appropriated funds for the purchase of the library in 1815. The current building, constructed in the Italian Renaissance style, was finished in 1897. It now houses 144 million items!
Beyond the functionality of storing so much knowledge, the building itself is architecturally gorgeous and decorated with classical imagery. Take the lovely Minerva, for example. My photo does not capture the beauty of the mosaic depicting the Roman goddess, Minerva, the guardian of civilization. Click HERE to see the mosaic in all its glory. Minerva is known as the goddess of poetry, wisdom, medicine, commerce, weaving, crafts, and magic. (Wikipedia) She is often depicted with an owl (a familiar!) to symbolize wisdom.
Gets me wondering: what would our Puritan forefathers think of all this pagan symbolism in the heart of our nation? I have the feeling they’d be right here with the pitchforks and torches claiming they were ridding the Capitol of satanic forces and restoring it to Christianity. (See Salem Witch Trials). Which also leads to me wonder if it is really possible for ONE deity (even divided into three parts) to symbolize all the concepts we hold dear. Is is really so very wrong to picture Wisdom as a beautiful goddess, especially one who holds a spear in hand, ready to defend civilization?
It’s all well and good to peer up at the painted, vaulted ceiling and heave an admiring sigh or two (or a hundred), but what about actually using the library to, well, research something? The doors to the main reading room were tantalizingly near with a “Do Not Enter” sign standing guard. Obviously, casual, walk-in visitors to the library are not allowed entrance. We were able to climb some stairs and look down into the main reading room with its wooden reading tables, red walls, soaring rotunda ceiling and tantalizing glimpses of stacks surrounding the area. No photography allowed, though. Click HERE to see a photo on the library’s website.
Speaking with a docent, I asked “How do you get to use the library?” She explained about signing up for a reader identification card which allows you to visit the reading rooms and to request materials for study. The thought of actually sitting in that room, searching the databases, requesting materials from the stacks, and reading beneath that rotunda makes me giddy. And what must it be like to work here at the library with all its collected knowledge organized and housed and available for anyone who wishes to learn? The website says there are openings for volunteer docents, and if I were going to stay here in D.C. that is something I would seriously consider. If this is a temple to wisdom, would working here make me a priestess?
This day, our visiting friends (D.J. Donny Bess and Sweet Caroline who flew down from Maine) and I looked around at some of the exhibits and then headed back outside where Neptune guards from his fountain perch overlooking the East Front of the Capitol Building.
Walking across the street and looking back, I took a final look at the temple of my familiars.