The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world by size and number of books. It is the official research library of the United Stated Congress and is the unofficial library of the United States.
The primary mission of the library is to facilitate the research requests of members of Congress through the Congressional Research Services. Although the library is open to the public only members of Congress, Supreme Court Justices and other high ranking members of the federal government may check out books.
The Library of Congress came into existence on April 24, 1800 when President John Adams signed an Act of Congress transferring the seat of government from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to the new city of Washington, D.C. The initial piece of legislation appropriated $5,000 for the purchase of books and for “fitting up a suitable apartment for containing them.” Books were purchased in London and the initial collection consisted of 740 books and 3 maps and was housed in the new Capitol building. The collection was mostly legal in nature because the intent of the library was to aide members of Congress in researching pending legislation.
On January 26, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson signed into law a bill establishing a structure for the Library of Congress. In this bill were provisions setting up a presidentially appointed Joint Committee on the Library which would oversee all library operations. Also, a presidentially appointed Librarian of Congress was established. Another provision of this law gave the President and Vice-President the right to borrow books.
In August of 1814, during the War of 1812, British troops burned down the Capitol building which housed the library. All 3,000 books in it were destroyed in this fire along with the Capital. The Executive Mansion (White House) was destroyed by fire as well.
After the fire, former President Thomas Jefferson offered his entire personal library to the Library of Congress as a replacement for the books that were destroyed.
Actually the books that Jefferson had donated were far superior to the books that were previously housed in the library. He had been collecting them for years and the subject matters were very diverse and many of the books were in foreign languages and covered a wide variety of topics like religion, philosophy, literature and there were even some cook books as well.
During the early 1850’s there was an intense struggle between the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution. The institution’s librarian, Charles Coffin was lobbying hard to have the Smithsonian Institution declared as the official national library. This was settled by the Smithsonian’s Secretary, Joseph Henry who wanted to focus on scientific research. As a result the Smithsonian’s Librarian was forced to resign and the issue was settled once and for all.
The largest fire in the history of the Library of Congress occurred on December 24, 1851. Over 35,000 books which were roughly two-thirds of the library’s 55,000 book collection were destroyed including two-thirds of Jefferson’s original contribution.
In 1852, Congress appropriated funds to replace the destroyed books but no authorization was given for the purchase of any additional new books. This marked the beginning of a conservative approach to administrating the library which would last until the end of the Civil War in 1865.
After the Civil War, the library slowly began to come back to life. Under the administration of Ainsworth Rand Spofford who was the Librarian of Congress from 1865 until 1897.
After the Civil War, the federal government expanded significantly. Spofford was able to build bipartisan support for the library in Congress. He was able to focus increasing the library’s collections especially in Americana and American Literature. This resulted in a much needed expansion of a new building to house the library and all of its resources.
Between 1865 and 1870, Congress appropriated enough funds to allow the construction of the Thomas Jefferson Building. In this building was housed all of the copyright and deposit activities that were under the library’s control and the international book exchange program was reinstated.
During this period of time, the Library of Congress had also acquired the vast library of the Smithsonian which significantly increased its scientific and Americana collections. By the time the library moved to its new building it had amassed over 840,000 volumes of books.
In 1886, the Joint Library Committee held hearings to plan for the future growth of the library and to determine the current condition of the Library of Congress. Librarian Spofford sent a team of experts from the American Library Association and as a result of their convincing testimony Congress more than doubled their staff from 42 to 108.
The next librarian was John Russell Young. He served from 1897 to 1899. Even though his tenure was short his contributions were significant. He overhauled the library’s bureaucracy and through his channels in the Foreign Service he was able to procure more overseas collections. He also offered library assistance programs to the blind any physically handicapped years before any governmental department was forced to by statue.
Herbert Putnam was the next librarian. He served from 1899 to 1939. Putnam focused his attentions on making the library more accessible for the public and for other libraries as well.
Putnam also diversified the libraries collections. In 1903, he persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to order the State Department to transfer control of the papers of the Founding Fathers to the control of the Library of Congress.
He also started the interlibrary loan service thus making the Library of Congress the “library of last resort.”
Putnam also expanded the library’s foreign collection. He was able to purchase an 80,000 book collection from a Russian library as well as an Imperial Russian collection from the Romanov family totaling 2,600 volumes and a wide variety of subjects. He was also able to procure some Chinese and Japanese collections as well. He was also able to purchase one of the four remaining perfect Guttenberg Bibles for the library.
In 1939, Putnam retired and Archibald MacLeish replaced him. MacLeish served as Librarian of Congress until 1944. He was the most visible librarian and he encouraged all librarians to promote democracy and denounce fascism whenever possible.
MacLeish dedicated the South Reading Room of the Adams Building and created a “democracy alcove.” He commissioned artist Ezra Winter to paint four themed murals for the room.
During the war, the Library of Congress arranged to have Ft. Knox store the original Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution for safekeeping just in case something tragic happened. The Library of Congress also provided U.S. pilots with weather information for missions during the war as well.
In 1944, MacLeish was replaced by Luther H. Evans. Evans main contribution was the establishment of Library of Congress Missions throughout the world. These missions served different functions from acquiring European collections to helping the United Nations in San Francisco become established by assisting delegates with vital information. The mission in Japan helped the new Japanese government establish a National Diet Library for their legislative body.
Quincy Mumford took over in 1953 and remained as librarian until 1974. During this period there was an increased emphasis on educational spending and Mumford took advantage of this trend and set up new acquisition centers in Cairo, Egypt and New Delhi, India.
In 1967, a preservation office was set up. There various techniques were established to preserve books. This was to become the largest conservation and preservation effort for books in the United States.
In 1962, there was a movement to refocus the Library of Congress to its original role for providing information to the Congress. Some members of Congress felt that the emphasis should be placed on assisting the government with vital information rather than becoming a “national” library. This effort was let by Claiborne Pell, the chairman of the Joint Library Committee. Debate on this continued until 1970 when the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 which put the Library of Congress back to its legislative duties and in this act the Legislative Reference Service was renamed the Congressional Research Service.
In 1974, President Gerald Ford nominated Daniel J. Boorstin. Boorstin served as librarian until 1987. He significantly increased the amounts of collections and thanks to increased budgets was able to establish and strengthen ties with scholars, authors, publishers, educators and leaders of industry.
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan appointed James H. Billington as the Librarian of Congress. Billington still holds this office as of today. Thanks to advances in the internet, Billington was able to set up the library to all major educational institutions throughout the United States. After the end of the Cold War, the library has managed to assist emerging Eastern European countries in setting up libraries to assist their legislatures.
In the mid 1990’s, Billington began a program that is somewhat controversial amongst traditional librarians. He set up a program whose ultimate goal is to digitally preserve books. The program is called the National Digital Library. The library is still working with other libraries to set this up world wide calling it the World Digital Library.
The Library of Congress has grown from a small collection of books sitting in the Capitol Building to one of the biggest libraries as far a size of collections in the entire world. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson would be shocked and amazed on how much it has grown in 200 years. I think that they would also be very proud of the library’s achievements and with the advance of digital technologies; I think that the best years are yet to come.