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Library of Congress

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress began with an act of Congress in 1800 providing for the removal of the recently formed national government from Philadelphia to Washington. As part of this act, President Adams approved an act of Congress which provided $5,000 for books specifically for the use of Congress. A few years later, in 1802, President Jefferson approved a legislative compromise which made the position of Librarian of Congress a presidential appointment. This gave the Library of Congress a unique relationship with the Presidency. The first two Librarians of Congress were named of Jefferson, each having also served as the clerk of the House of Representatives. 

In 1814, during the War of 1812, in retaliation for the American destruction of Port Dover, the British ordered numerous public buildings in Washington to be destroyed, including the Library of Congress and its collection of 3,000 volumes. After the burning of the Library, it was former President Jefferson who came to the rescue. Jefferson made an offer to Congress, which was accepted, to sell his personal library of over 6,000 books to recommence its own library. Jefferson believed that all subjects of books had a place in the Library of Congress, stating of his collection: 

“I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”

His collection included subjects such as philosophy, law, history, architecture, religion, travel, mathematics, modern inventions, music, agriculture, meteorology, and even cookbooks. 

Fire again struck the Library of Congress on December 24, 1851, when the largest fire in the library’s history destroyed 35,000 books, which amounted to roughly two thirds of the library’s collection. In the following year, Congress appropriated $168,700 to replace the books that had been lost, but not to acquire new materials. This decision marked the beginning of a conservative period in the history of the library, under librarian John Silva Meehan and joint committee chairman James A. Pearce, who restricted the library’s activities. During his time as librarian, Meehan perpetuated the idea that “the congressional library should play a limited role on the  national scene and that its collections, by and large, should emphasize American materials of obvious use to the U.S. Congress.” 

A decade later, in 1861, John G. Stephenson was appointed as librarian by President Lincoln; this was regarded as the most political appointment to date. Stephensen was a physician who spent as much time serving as librarian as he did as a physician in the Union Army. He was able to manage this division by hiring Ainsworth Rand Spofford. Just three weeks into his term as librarian, Stephenson left Washington to serve as a volunteer aide-de-camp at the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg during the Civil War. Stephensen’s hiring of Spofford, who directed the library in his absence, was likely his most significant achievement. 

During his tenure from 1865-1897, Spofford built broad bipartisan support to develop the library as a national library as well as a legislative resource. His efforts were aided by the expansion of the federal government following the war, as well as a favorable political climate. Spofford began collecting Americana and American literature, led the construction of a new building to house the library, and transformed the position of librarian of Congress into one of independence and strength. Between 1865-70, Congress appropriated funds to construct the Thomas Jefferson Building, placed all copyright registration and deposit activities under the control of the library, as well as restored the international book exchange. To continue its growth, the Library of Congress acquired the vast collections of the Smithsonian and of historian Peter Force. These acquisitions significantly strengthened the library’s scientific and Americana collections. The Library of Congress had 300,000 volumes by 1876. The library moved from the Capitol Building to its new headquarters at the Thomas Jefferson building in 1897 with more than 840,000 volumes. 

Rendering of the Library of Congress in 1853

The Library of Congress in the Capitol Building in 1853


 Just a year before the relocation of the library, the Joint Library Committee held hearings in order to assess the condition of the library, and to plan for future growth. Based on the hearings, a budget was authorized by Congress which allowed the library to more than double its staff, from 42 to 108 people. This added support, as well as the 1897 reorganization, the Library began to grow and develop rapidly. John Russell Young, Spofford’s successor, overhauled the library’s bureaucracy, and used his connections as a former diplomat to acquire materials from around the world. Young also established the first assistance programs for the blind and physically disabled. 

Young’s successor was Herbert Putnam, who held the position between 1899 and 1939. During his time as librarian, the library became the first in the United States to hold one million volumes. Putnam focused his efforts on making the library more accessible, as well as more useful, for the public and other libraries. He instituted the interlibrary loan service, which transformed the Library into what he referred to as a “library of last resort”. The library also broadened the diversity of its acquisitions during Putnam’s tenure. The papers of the Founding Fathers were transferred from the State Department to the Library of Congress in 1903, after Putnam persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to use an executive order to do just that. Foreign acquisitions were also expanded by Putnam. 

After Putnam’s retirement in 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed writer and poet Archibald MacLeish to the position. MacLeish encouraged librarians to oppose totalitarianism on behalf of democracy and established a “democracy alcove” in the Main Reading Room of the Jefferson Building. This alcove contained important documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and The Federalist Papers. MacLeish resigned from the position of librarian in 1944, when he was appointed Assistant Secretary of State. 

In 1987 James H. Billington was appointed as librarian, and under his leadership the library doubled the size of its analog collections to more than 160 million items by 2014, and public spaces of the Jefferson Building were enlarged and technologically enhanced so that it could serve as a national exhibition venue. More than 100 exhibitions have been hosted since. 

Today, the Library of Congress’ collections include more than 32 million cataloged books and print materials in 470 languages. It also contains more than 61 million manuscripts and the largest rare book collection in North America. This includes the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, a Gutenberg Bible (one of only three perfect vellum copies known to exist). The collection also includes over 1 million U.S. government publications, 1 million issues of world newspapers spanning three centuries, 1.9 million moving images, over 5 million maps, 6 million works of sheet music, more than 14.5 million prints and photographic images, and so much more.


Looking for something else to read? Check out the history of the Washington Monument

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