How To Get a Library Card at the Library of Congress

Free access to everything in the Library of Congress must only be for congresspeople, right? Wrong! In fact, getting your own card as a citizen to access the LOC’s collections is both possible and straightforward.

As the world’s biggest library, the LOC holds treasure troves of books, historical materials, photographs, and recordings.

So whether you’re chasing down a specific project or just want to take a peek at what’s available, here’s how to get your library card today.

Library of Congress in Washington DC

Table of Contents


Pre-registering, the first step in the process of getting a card, can be done either at the Library or at home. If you have a sturdy computer at home, I recommend completing pre-registration there, since it asks for simple information. You can find a link to the Pre-registration form on the Library’s website under “Reader Registration and Access.”

You’ll fill in your name, address, and contact information, as well as your intended use of the collections. Make sure you fill in the same information as it appears on the photo I.D. you plan to use.

Important to note: during the Pandemic, walk-in visits to the Jefferson Building are not available to the public. However, you can easily reserve a free time slot on the Library’s website. As of January 2022, time slots are available every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday between 10am and 3pm. Reservations are available in increments of 15 minutes. You can reserve up to 6 passes a day, up to 30 days in advance.

Library of Congress in Washington DC

Getting There

There are two locations at which you can register for a card: the Madison Building and the Jefferson Building. Both are on adjacent blocks, right next to the U.S. Capitol building, at the eastern border of the National Mall.

You can easily take Metrorail lines orange, silver, or blue to Capitol South Station just a few blocks away, or you can take the Red line to Union Station and take a longer walk.

Parking will be trickier, but there is a car lot that runs around $5 an hour a few blocks down Pennsylvania Ave. Sometimes you can also get lucky with street parking farther east in the Eastern Market neighborhood.

If you are looking for the full architectural experience, you should definitely opt for Jefferson. With its Versailles-like exterior and stunning inner rotunda, it’s up there with the most beautiful buildings DC has to offer.

Jefferson’s entrance is on the building’s eastern side, on 1st Street SE (contrary to its official address of 101 Independence Ave SE).

Once you’ve arrived, ascend the steps into the Great Hall (and ogle that beautiful ceiling.) You’ll walk down one of the staircases and straight across the Main Reading Room to the other side. From there, climb up another staircase and look out for the sign for room LJ 139; inside you’ll see the desk for Reader Registration.

The Madison Building is one block south, across Independence Ave, the same street from which you enter. Inside, take a left at the help desk and a right down the next hallway. Look out for Room LM 133 on your left, also the Newspaper & Current Periodicals Reading Room, and you’ll see the Reader Registration desk inside.

Both library buildings require all visitors to walk through a metal detector and have their bags checked, so it’s best to leave your liquids, gels, and aerosols at home.

Library of Congress in Washington DC

Getting Your Card

After presenting your I.D., you will be asked to pre-register at one of the nearby computers if you haven’t already done so. Once you’ve completed registration, a librarian will verify your information.

Now, it’s picture time. A librarian will take you to the photography room, where you’ll stand in front of a screen, DMV-style. Say cheese!

After your picture is taken, the Library should have your card processed and in your hands within minutes. Congratulations, you’re now a Congress-approved researcher!

Library of Congress

Finding Materials

Ready to research?

The Library has 17 reading rooms, all dedicated to a certain area. The easiest way to pinpoint the material that interests you is to consult the Index of Library of Congress Research Guides online. There, you’ll find resources divided into 80 subjects, from Balkan Studies to Recorded Sound! Under each is a drop-down menu of subtopics, each with its own research guide.

Guides will give background information on the subject and where to find related materials in the Library. Many research guides contain material that has been scanned into the website, so you can browse through what’s available from the comfort of home.

An even more detailed list can be found in the Web Guides by the Library of Congress Digital Reference Section, listed under “Researchers” and then “Virtual Programs & Services” on the official website. For those with a general sense of what they want to explore, this is a good place to start.

Those with a specific idea of the materials could search directly from the catalog, which allows you to filter a keyword’s results by its location in the Library, place of publication, type of material, and language.

Another great resource is the Library of Congress Bibliographies, Research Guides, and Finding Aids, also under “Virtual Programs & Services”. This will give you a more exhaustive list of specific collections and how to navigate them. 

If you’d like to visit the Library in person, you can do so by making an appointment over the phone with the room that you want to visit. Most rooms are open for appointments all weekdays from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm and from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm. Some rooms are also open on Saturdays during the same hours. A full list of phone numbers by room is available in the Library website’s “For Researchers” page.

Lastly, if you can’t find research materials or don’t know where to begin your exploration, the librarians are there to help! Thanks to the website’s Ask A Librarian service, you can easily send a question to a specialist, or even chat live with a librarian from 12 pm to 4 pm on weekdays. Happy reading!

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