Wednesday, April 27, 2011

April 24, 1800: Library of Congress Established

Thomas Jefferson
The United States of America had barely set up a permanent government when its legislators, the Congress, determined that an in-house reference library was necessary to assist the senators and representatives of the two Houses to prepare materials for debates and legislation. Two hundred and eleven years ago this week, Congress passed an act, endorsed by Vice President Thomas Jefferson and signed by President John Adams, establishing the Library of Congress.

Today’s Library of Congress, the largest library in the world with over 147 million items, consists of three buildings. But in 1800, no separate building was yet needed to hold the library. The first volumes were housed in the office of the secretary of the Senate.

A permanent library had not been created previously, because the seat of federal government had moved every year to different prominent cities in the young nation. Since a federal city - Washington - had been incorporated, however, and the seat of government had set up house-keeping within it, a permanent library was now feasible.

Five thousand dollars were earmarked for the establishment of the library, and soon, 740 volumes and three maps arrived from England, including books on law, political science, and history.
British set fire to Capitol 1814
Within its first fifty years, the library was beset with three fiery trials. In August 1814 (during the War of 1812), the British invaded Washington and set fire to every handy federal building, including the White House and the Capitol. Although a providential thunderstorm provided a downpour which put out the flames before the whole Capitol was consumed, the 3,000 volumes of the Library of Congress made good kindling. In January the following year, Thomas Jefferson restored the library by selling his personal library - 6,487 volumes - to the government. By May 1815, the library was up and running again, located in the Old Brick Capitol building across the street from the Capitol, where the Supreme Court now stands.

Two more fires struck the Library of Congress during the 19th Century, once in 1825, when a small fire destroyed some duplicate volumes, and again on Christmas Eve, 1851, when a major fire destroyed 35,000 volumes, which amounted to about two-thirds of the library’s holdings. This destruction included the Jefferson collection. Besides the quick appropriations of Congress to replace the lost volumes, the library was significantly supplemented in the late 1850s when the Smithsonian Institution, devoting itself strictly to scientific research, handed over its 40,000-volume library to the LOC. Other significant American collections in the latter half of the 19th Century broadened its holdings as well.

Book acquisition came much more easily after President Lincoln appointed Ainsworth Rand Spofford as Librarian of Congress in 1864. Spofford served in this position until 1897. He revolutionized copyright procedures and saved tax dollars by convincing Congress to pass a law in 1870 requiring all copyright applicants to submit two copies of their work - books, pamphlets, maps, music, prints, photographs, etc. - to the Library as part of the copyright registration (for which a fee was also charged). As a result, the Library of Congress grew exponentially.

Jefferson Building, Library of Congress
Within a few years, it had far outgrown its space, and Congress approved the construction of a building to house the library. After many delays, the ornate Jefferson Building was completed in 1897, at which time the library was opened to the public as well as for the government offices.

With continued growth, the library expanded into the Adams Building which opened in 1939, and again in 1980 into the new Madison Building. The Jefferson Building was restored in the 1990s, reopening in 1997, and is a magnificent tribute to the arts.

Library of Congress
“Washington, DC, Blue Guide” by Candyce H. Stapen, Ph.D., W.W. Norton, New York, 2000.

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