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Up Close With the Pages of History

Correction Appended

“Laws are like sausage. It’s better not to see them being made,” the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck is said to have quipped.

Tourists will get a behind-the-scenes look at a more pleasant and historically significant body of work — the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights — with the Saturday opening of the new “Library of Congress Experience.”

Those three documents are the focus of “Creating the United States,” one of two exhibits debuting as part of the experience. Visitors will be able to take a close look at Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft of the declaration and George Washington’s annotated Constitution.

The exhibit uses technology to show how America’s founding documents were created. For instance, a touchscreen display shows the preamble to the declaration, allowing visitors to navigate to previous versions of the document and learn how the final edition was crafted.

Librarian of Congress James Billington hailed the experience on Wednesday as an example of the LOC’s “continued mission of bringing information about Congress to people in interesting ways.”

[IMGCAP(1)]Saturday’s festivities begin at 11 a.m. with the national anthem, a children’s musical and remarks from Billington. The exhibits go on display at noon, with visitors entering through the Jefferson Building’s three bronze doors, opened to the public for the first time since 1990. Music and activities for children will go on until 5 p.m., when the event ends.

Another exhibit, “Thomas Jefferson’s Library,” also opens Saturday. It re-creates the 6,487-volume collection Jefferson sold to Congress in 1815.

The circular, glass-cased library contains about 2,000 of Jefferson’s original volumes that survived a fire in the Capitol in 1851. All but 300 of the rest of the volumes were re-created for the still-active library, said Mark Dimunation, curator of the Jefferson exhibit.

The experience is joined by the launch of, which will display documents from the exhibit and re-create the touchscreens.

Starting in December, visitors will receive virtual passports with barcodes that allow them to bookmark documents and review them later on their personal page.

“This is all part of Dr. Billington’s vision of not wanting people to have to come to Washington to experience the Library of Congress,” said Chris Carlson, a project manager for the exhibits.

“Creating the United States” and the Jefferson Library exhibits join “Exploring the Early Americas,” which opened in December. It focuses on Christopher Columbus’ voyages and the early history of the New World.

The Gutenberg Bible and Giant Bible of Mainz also will go on display Saturday.

While “Creating the United States” focuses on America’s founding, it also explores how the founding documents have guided America later in its history.

Video montages capture Martin Luther King Jr. referring to the declaration as a “promissory note” in his speech at the March on Washington in 1963. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) is shown making his patented display of his pocket Constitution during a Senate floor speech.

The exhibit seeks to show that “these are living documents, in that they’re still used,” curator Gerard Gawalt said. “People are still calling on these documents to get what they want.”

The Jefferson Library and “Early Americas” exhibits are permanent, while “Creating the United States” will be on display for three years.

The LOC is eventually to be connected via tunnel to the new Capitol Visitor Center, which officials said should encourage CVC visitors to check out the exhibits.

“I believe it may turn out to be the reverse,” said Gerry Lenfest, chairman of the LOC’s James Madison Council. “People will come here to see the new visitor’s experience, and then they’ll go see the Capitol.”

Correction: April 11, 2008

The article originally misidentified the source of a quotation about the tunnel connecting the Capitol Visitor Center to the Library of Congress. The quotation should have been attributed to Gerry Lenfest, the chairman of the LOC’s James Madison Council.

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