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Religion Collections in Libraries and Archives: Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia

Library of Congress: Main Reading Room

Introductory Information

Library of Congress: Main Reading Room

Address: 101 Independence Ave. SE, Thomas Jefferson Bldg, Room LJ 100, Washington, D.C. 20540-4660

Telephone number: 202-707-3399

Contact information

Online catalog

Digital Collections link

Access Policies

Hours of service

Open to the public: Yes

Interlibrary loan: Yes

Reference policy: Reference requests are accepted by: Ask-a-Librarian form, chat, telephone, email, in-person.

A Library of Congress Reader Registration card is required to use Library of Congress reading rooms. To obtain a registration card, applicants must be 16 years of age or older and present photo identification bearing a verifiable permanent address. Please see Reader Registration and Access to Library of Congress Reading Rooms for more information.

Background note:
The Library of Congress was founded in 1800. After its collections were destroyed during the British attack on Washington in 1814, Thomas Jefferson made his eclectic and broad-ranging collection of approximately 6,500 books available for the reestablishment of the collection. The variety of Jefferson's library became the hallmark of the growing collection at the Library of Congress. The collection covers all subject areas with the exception of clinical medicine and technical agriculture, which are handled by the National Library of Medicine and the National Agricultural Library, respectively. The Library's collection of books and serials consists of over 25 million volumes from throughout the world and represent 460 languages. The Library of Congress is particularly strong in materials received via copyright deposit from United States publishers and overseas publishers with distributors in the United States.


Books and monographs
As the de facto national library of the United States, the Library of Congress acquires for its permanent collections works of research value in the philosophy of religion; the history and principles of religion; comparative religion; systems of theology and doctrine; law, liturgy, and rituals; religion and society: its historical, social, and cultural role; and trends and developments of current or historic importance. Emphasis is placed on publications of scholarly and research interest at national or international levels.

Inclusive publication dates of the General Collections are 1801 to the present. All pre-1801 materials are located in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Works on religious Law are in the Law Library. Below are some areas of particular strength.

  • American Religious History--The General Collections are particularly strong in United States religious history. All the large religious groups in the country are covered, many by their own publications, along with the works by American religious leaders. This includes notable sectarian groups such as Christian Science and the Latter-day Saints
  • Missionary work--The general collections have several thousand books and pamphlets by missionaries and missionary organizations.
  • Religious youth movements--The Library holds works by the Sunday School Movement and the YMCA including 19th- and 20th-century denominational question books, catechisms, and tools for teachers.
  • African American religion--Because of the influence of the Copyright Office on the collection, the general collections have a representative amount of religious materials on African American churches, clergy, and religion in the 20th century.
  • 20th-century movements--The general collections have a noteworthy and representative array of items reflecting the rise in new religious movement of the 20th century. There are, for example, all English-language works by the Church of Scientology, numerous works about the Unification Church and a microform edition of Edgar Cayce’s readings in the Microform Reading Room. The New Age Movement is also well represented.
  • Scriptures--The Library's general collections offer an outstanding starting point with its extensive holdings of the sacred texts and other basic writings of all major and many minor religions worldwide, including all significant editions and translations of the Bible, Talmud, Tripitaka, Vedas, Upanishads, and others, as well as large numbers of interpretive or reference works about them. The Rare Book Reading Room should be consulted for works before 1801.
  • Christianity (general)--The breadth of the Christian resources in the collection is comprehensive covering history, theology, doctrine, social and cultural subjects, as well as trends and current developments.
  • Hymns and Hymnals--Hymns with music can be found in the Performing Arts Reading Room. A representative collection of hymns without music, a common form in the 19th century, is found in the general collections.
  • Patristics--Patristic works are exceptionally well represented in the collection by original texts, translations, and commentaries. The Library of Congress has translations in other foreign languages when these include scholarly commentaries in critical notes. The Library also has useful resources on the Coptic and Syriac Churches as well as other ancient groups. Many of these have sizable portions in western languages or are part of a western series and thus are found in the general collections. Materials in the vernacular for Coptic and Syriac are accessed through the African and Middle Eastern Division.
  • Orthodox Church--The Library of Congress has significant collections in Orthodox and Russian Orthodox materials. All major scholarly works are represented complimented by a comprehensive collection of liturgical texts and service books.  Orthodox works for Bulgaria, Serbia, and the Ukraine are also represented with good collections. Important pre-1801 collections can be found in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, and the Manuscript Division holds the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America, Diocese of Alaska Records for 1844-1974 (a microform version is available in the Microform Reading Room).
  • Judaism--The general collections contain most 20th-century English language publications by Jewish presses in the United States and United States presses with titles on Jews and Judaism. Sacred works such as the Bible and Talmud are available in English and in many other languages, along with commentaries. There is also a good collection of 19th- and 20th-century rabbinic sermons. See the Hebraic Section of the African and Middle Eastern Reading Room for materials in the vernacular.
  • Islam--Materials relating to the study of Islam in the general collections are especially rich since the 1950s, providing good resources for graduate-level research. All major schools of thought are represented. The addition of the collections available in the Near East Section (in the vernacular) makes the collections for the study of Islam at the Library especially strong. The general collections contain translations of the Qur'an and Hadith and an large collection of travelogues from the 19th century which describe the life, customs, and religions of Islamic regions. The Library collects broadly in Islamic materials, both geographically and philosophically.
  • Baha'i--The Library of Congress has a significant collection of English language Baha'i materials published in the United States and a reasonable selection of English language Baha'i materials published elsewhere. Approximately 60% of all Bahai'i;i publications are in English. Baha'i materials in the original languages are not a strength of the Library's collection.
  • Buddhism and Hinduism--Buddhism and Hinduism are each represented by books in Western the areas of doctrine, practice, studies, history, and translations of sacred books. These sources in the general collections can support an undergraduate level of research. To study at a graduate level one must know the canonical languages of these religions. These canonical works can be found in the Asian Division.

Periodicals and newspapers
The highlights of the periodical collections mirror those in the monograph collection. Of special note are denominational reports, annual conference minutes, and journals.
The Library has hundreds of online databases which provide access to many additional full-text serials.

The microform collections relating to religion are large and varied in scope. One may review these in Microform Collections in Religion and Theology: A Guide.  Other collections, not specifically relating to religion, also hold materials of interest. Please see A Guide to the Microform Collections in the Researcher and Reference Services Division.

Databases and/or electronic resources

Digital collections
Of special note:
Manuscripts from the Monasteries of Mt. Athos
Manuscripts in St. Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai
Manuscripts in the Libraries of the Greek and Armenian Patriarchates in Jerusalem

Subject Headings

'Abdu'l Baha, 1844-1921; Baha'i faith; Bible; Buddhism; Christian Science; Christian sects; Church history; Church history--United States; Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Church of Scientology; Eastern Orthodox Church; Eddy, Mary Baker, 1821-1910; Franciscans; Fundamentalism; Hadith; Hinduism; Hymns and hymnals; Islam; Jesuits; Judaism; Liturgy; Luther, Martin, 1483-1546; Missions and missionaries; Patristics; Qur'an; Protestants; Religion--United States--History; Religious education of children; Religious tracts; Russian Orthodox Church; Sacred texts; Sermons; Society of Friends; Sunday schools; Talmud; World Council of Churches