The Faces of the Library of Congress


The Library of Congress is an institution of which many are aware, but I suspect few people stop to consider the physical buildings which house our many ideas on democracy and the world.  The Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress was built in the last decade of the nineteenth century and serves as the site of the elegantly formal reading room.  The architecture of the building is fascinating, as there are scenes from antiquity to American history carved around the building.

All 33 Ethnological Heads before Installation:

Individual Heads from

Caffin, Charles Henry, Handbook of the Library of Congress. Boston:  Curtis & Cameron, 1906: p. 12-18, GoogleBooks –

For the purposes of peace pedagogy, we need only look to arches around the lower level windows in the building.  Atop each arch, visitors can see 33 faces staring back at them.  These “ethnological heads” were included in the architecture at a time when many European countries were becoming global imperial powers and just before the onset of the Spanish-American War.  In just a few years, the scientific racism of eugenics would gain international popularity as institutions of higher education sought to classify the differing peoples across the globe.

This is a difficult topic that is often ignored or faintly touched upon in secondary education.  It is difficult to bring up topics of race in many classrooms, because there is an inherent conversation of class, power, and privilege.  For varying reasons, many students are afraid to describe their perceptions of the world around them today.

This resource can be used in many levels of education, depending on how far a facilitator wishes to go.  My vision is to use it in a secondary setting, allowing students to discuss differing interpretations of the presence of these heads before having them evaluate the presence of them as positive, negative, or other.

First, I would have students analyze the picture of all the faces without much introductory context.  Students should be encouraged to note the similarities and differences between the faces, then asked to guess the purpose of these heads and where they might be located.

Next, each students should take an individual face and research the title to it, which is the generic race to which the head is supposed to belong.  This can take as much time as you like and can culminate in whatever type of sharing fits your group of students.

After students have an understanding that the ethnological heads represent 33 distinct races scientist once believed existed on the planet, they should be asked to judge if these faces should be included on the Library of Congress or not.

Their opinions will more than likely fall into two categories.  First, the inclusion of such a diverse population on the exterior of the building is a positive good for it recognizes the contributions of the entire human race to the wealth of knowledge included in the Library of Congress.  At the other end of the spectrum is the idea that such ethnological representations and heads indicate a scientific racism that focuses on the differences between people in an attempt to create a hierarchy to protect global social stratification.

Questions to consider asking students of opinions anywhere on the spectrum may include:

  • What might it mean that the faces are all the same size?
  • Does it matter that European countries were busy taking over other lands?
  • What might these heads represent in the 1890s, while much of the nation, including Washington, DC was segregated?
  • Are these accurate representations of these races, or exaggerated caricatures?

As the purpose of Social Studies curriculum across the nation is to gain a better understanding of why we as societies (local to global) are the way we are, these particular questions and themes could fit anywhere in a high school curriculum.  World History focuses on the contributions of many cultures represented by these sculptures.  The Thomas Jefferson building itself is a text to be read in American History – and especially in a DC History class.  They are much too rich a source to be ignored.

There is no wrong way to read this architecture.  Quite literally, they are etched in stone for everyone to make of them what they will.  For students, they may represent a safe venue to explore topics of race and diversity within their own communities.  To ask them if the presence of ethnological heads on a building of national significance is appropriate or not allows students to consider these questions on both a national and international scale as well

As with many of the sources I have presented this course, I believe this resource helps with reframing history and engaging multiple intelligences.

A close look at the faces reveals a fairly comprehensive ancestry of our global society.  Included in this is several ethnicities categorized as “Middle Eastern” by today’s standards.  I believe it is important to point out, in the presence of much ignorance and misguided opinions in today’s political world, that such peoples have been contributing to world cultures since recorded history began.  These contributions were recognized by scholars across the world for centuries before our current one.  It seems much ignorance and racism in the world today comes from a cultural amnesia in the wake of modern political events.

The visual aspect of analyzing the heads allows for engaging students with Gardner’s spatial intelligence.  Naturalist students may focus on the idea of how the built environment of these heads relates to the world outside the library, while interpersonal students may interpret how this resource either encourages or discourages interaction within a global society.

The fact that there is not completely right or wrong way to read this architectural feature may foster an acceptance of multiple perspectives and help students understand conflicting views are acceptable both between people and within themselves.  This would help nurture emotional intelligence in all students as well.

Several other pillars of peace education could be worked into a discussion of the Library of Congress Ethnological Heads, but I feel to discuss them would be in excess in a blog post.  When I found out about them, my mind ran wild trying to figure out how to bring such a fascinating resource into my classroom.  This is one idea I had, but I am more than open to further ideas.  This is just too good a source for a history teacher with an academic interest in race to pass up!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s