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Globe-Trotting at the Library of Congress: DC/SLA Tours Hispanic and European Reading Rooms

By Carol Abrams

Mural painting “Mining for Gold,” Hispanic Reading Room, Library of Congress. Photograph By Carol M. Highsmith, ca. 2000. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2011631434/

Mural painting “Mining for Gold,” Hispanic Reading Room, Library of Congress. Photograph By Carol M. Highsmith, ca. 2000.

[Editor’s Note: Julia Leggett, chair of the DC/SLA International Relations Committee, recently arranged several tours of the foreign language collections at the Library of Congress. Here is Carol Abrams account of one of those tours. Carol is earning her MIS degree at the University of Tennessee. ]

Cervantes’ Don Quixote has been translated into more languages than any other book save the Bible, according to Juan Perez, acting head of the Hispanic Reading Room at the Library of Congress (LC). Perez told a group from DC/SLA that a first edition of Don Quixote from 1605 is part of the LC’s collection, along with translations in 33 languages including Bulgarian and Uzbek. This year, the world is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the second part of Don Quixote, which was published in 1615.

The LC’s Hispanic collection began with Thomas Jefferson’s books on Latin America. Jefferson owned Spanish-language titles, dictionaries, and, of course, his own copy of Cervantes’ masterpiece. As  Perez showed us around the room, which is designed as an homage to 15th century Spain and Portugal with vaulted ceilings, light fixtures in the Mudéjar tradition that blends European and Arabic influences, and tiles from Pueblo, Mexico, he spoke of the wall-sized murals that flank the room. Visitors are welcomed by a series of bold murals by Portuguese artist Cândido Portinari and then come upon Christopher Columbus’ coat of arts as they enter the room.

Hispanic Reading Room-LOC

Hispanic Reading Room, Library of Congress, Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Perez highlighted treasures from among the ten to 12 million items that comprise the Hispanic collection, such as Christopher Columbus’ Book of Privileges from 1502. Columbus compiled the honors, titles, and powers bestowed upon him by the Crown (some would say as an insurance policy for his heirs).

Perez told the DC/SLA group that the LC has recordings of well over 650 writers reading selections from their own works in a collection titled the “Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape.” This includes eight Nobel Prize winners such as Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia) and Octavio Paz (Mexico).

Our second stop was hosted by Grant Harris, head of the European Reading Room at the Library of Congress.

European Reading Room, Library of Congress, Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

European Reading Room, Library of Congress, Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Harris told us that half the researchers coming to the European Division are seeking material about Russia. Their Russian collection is as large as any outside of Russia itself and includes post-Soviet material and the Comintern Archives Database. Harris, who specializes in Albania, Kosovo, Moldova, and Romania, showed us current, unbound Slavic and Baltic periodicals (about 3,500 titles). Harris told the DC/SLA group about his collecting trips overseas and the value of being an inveterate collector. The European Division’s sets of telephone and address directories from decades ago have enabled genealogists, among others, to track where their ancestors lived and when they moved.

Harris led the group through the shelving decks to a magnificent and unique vantage point over the LC’s main reading room. There, he entertained us with a story about seeing Chelsea Clinton in the main reading room when she was in high school. She was preparing for a model United Nations with material that the librarians had pulled for her.

If you would like to visit either the Hispanic or European Divisions of the LC, please stop first at the Madison Building to register for a free Reader Identification Card issued by the Library.

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