I just returned from Washington, DC, where my wife and I did a little sightseeing with her brother and his family. It’s been a few years since I’ve been to places like the National Archives and the Library of Congress, and I have to say the exhibit space and quality in both has improved since my last visit.
The Library of Congress would be a building worth visiting even if it didn’t have any books in it. I can remember my father talking about doing research there in the days when the only decent place to eat in the neighborhood was the congressional cafeteria. That’s not an issue anymore. We had lots of great options just around the corner but if your hunger is for books, the LC is a great place to visit—even if you are not lucky enough to be a researcher in the main reading room.
Though I came to the library because of my love of books (and I always get a thrill standing in from of the Gutenberg Bible on display in the main atrium) the exhibits currently on at the library drove home to me the fact that a great library preserves much more than just books. I think my favorite exhibit was one devoted to the Gershwin brothers, George and Ira. If I had to describe this exhibit in one word, I guess I’d say “S’wonderful!” Though in a library, the exhibit had few books in it. Instead, we saw sheet music, original manuscript material, and some stunning things you might not expect in a library. In the center of the room was a large display that included George’s custom-built writing desk, Ira’s typewriter (since I have Lewis Carroll’s typewriter in my collection, I’m always interested to see other famous typewriters), and best of all, the grand piano at which George composed many of his songs. It was not easy to resist jumping the ropes and playing a Gershwin tune on that instrument, but I managed to behave (which is why I am not blogging from federal prison). I was also impressed with several paintings by George and Ira, including a self-portrait of each. I had no idea that either Gershwin painted. George’s painting of Jerome Kern (shown above) was a really lovely piece of art in its own right.
I came away from this exhibit with a deep appreciation not just for the Gershwins, but for all that libraries do to preserve our heritage—primarily through the preservation of books and documents, but also by saving and protecting everything from paintings to typewriters to pianos. The exhibit (next to a hallway featuring the winners of the Gershwin Prize) is permanent, so be sure to check it out next time you are in DC. And if you can’t resist playing that piano, I’ll come visit you in prison and we can sing a few numbers together.