Library of Congress

The Library of Congress, founded in 1800 and housed in a three-building complex across from the nation's capitol in Washington, D.C., is a storehouse for knowledge and an active center for research and creativity of all kinds--the world's largest and most open library. With collections numbering close to 100 million items, it includes materials in 460 languages; the basic manuscript collections of 23 Presidents of the United States, and the papers of thousands of other figures who have shaped history; maps and atlases that have aided explorers and navigators in charting both the world and outer space; the earliest motion pictures and examples of recorded sound, as well as the latest data bases and software packages.

The Russian/Soviet collections of the Library of Congress are strong in all areas except clinical medicine and technical agriculture, which are covered by the National Library of Medicine and the National Agricultural Library, respectively. The Library possesses approximately one million volumes of monographs and bound periodicals in the Russian language, 60,000 in Ukrainian, and 11,000 in Belorussian, the largest collections anywhere outside Russia. In addition, the Library acquires on an annual basis some 15,000-20,000 monographs and 3,000 serial titles from the Soviet Union and maintains an acquisition office in Moscow.

The Library serves as the basic research arm of the Congress through its Congressional Research Service, which is the largest public policy "think tank" in America and annually answers nearly a half-million inquiries and produces some 1,000 reports for the Congress. The Library also services the Congress and the nation through its administration of the Copyright Office, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, the Law Library, and its extensive, multi-lingual program of research services.

In servicing the nation, the Library of Congress also:

Background and History

The Library of Congress is the nation's library. Its services extend not only to members and committees of the Congress, but to the executive and judicial branches of government, to libraries throughout the nation and the world, and to the scholars and researchers and artists and scientists who use its resources.

This was not always the case. When President John Adams signed the bill that provided for the removal of the seat of government to the new capital city of Washington in 1800, he created a reference library for Congress only. The bill provided, among other items, $5,000 "for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress--and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein...."

The first books were ordered from England and shipped across the Atlantic in 11 hair trunks and a map case. The Library was housed in the new Capitol until August 1814, when British troops invaded Washington and burned the Capitol Building; the small congressional library of some 3,000 volumes was lost in the fire.

Within a month former President Thomas Jefferson, living in retirement at Monticello, offered as a replacement his personal library, accumulated over a span of 50 years. It was considered to be one of the finest in the United States. In proffering the library to the Congress Jefferson wrote, "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." After considerable debate Congress in January 1815 accepted Jefferson's offer, appropriating $23,950 for the collection of 6,487 books. Thus the foundation was laid for a great national library.

Two more fires were to influence the course of the Library of Congress. In 1825 a small fire in the Library (again, housed in rooms of the Capitol) burned some duplicate volumes. But a more serious fire in 1851 destroyed two-thirds of the cumulated holdings--some 35,000 volumes, including a substantial portion of the Jefferson library. In response, Congress voted a massive appropriation to replace the lost books, plus funds to construct a large, multigalleried series of rooms across the west side of the Capitol building, designed for the exclusive use of the Library.

By the close of the Civil Way, the collections of the Library of Congress had grown to 82,000 volumes and were still principally used by members of Congress and committees; the Library was seen mainly as the "Congressional Library," as it was popularly referred to into the early years of the 20th century.

Expanding the Collections

In 1864 President Lincoln appointed as Librarian of Congress a man who was to transform the Library from a collection for use only by members of Congress, justices of the Supreme Court, and members of the diplomatic corps and the cabinet. He was Ainsworth Rand Spofford, who opened the Library to the public and greatly expanded its collections. Spofford successfully advocated a change in the copyright law so that the Library would receive two free copies of every book, map, chart, dramatic or musical composition, engraving, cut, print, or photograph submitted for copyright. Through an agreement with the Smithsonian Institution, he also began to acquire on a regular basis American scientific materials and foreign exchange documents. Passage of another law resulted in the Library's acquisition of free copies of the Congressional Record and all American statues, which Spofford parlayed into document exchanges with all foreign countries that had diplomatic relations with the United States. Predictably, Spofford soon filled all the Capitol's library rooms, attics, and hallways. In 1873, he then won another lobbying effort--for a new building to permanently house the nation's growing collection and reading rooms to serve scholars and the reading public.

Housing the Collections

After considering and rejecting designs for a Library building ranging from a classic Greek facade to Victorian Gothic, a congressional Joint Committee on the Library finally selected a modified Italian Renaissance style submitted by two Washington architects, John L. Smithmeyer and Paul J. Pelz, in a design contest. Frustrated by construction delays, however, Congress eventually fired the architects and retained Brigadier General Thomas Lincoln Casey, chief of the Army Engineers, and Bernard Richard Green, a civil engineer, who completed the Thomas Jefferson Building in 1897. A celebration of the arts, their "American Renaissance" creation of murals, mosaics, and marble was produced by scores of sculptors, painters, and stone cutters. Crowning the structure is the Main Reading Room's glorious dome, 125 feet high and 100 feet wide, supported by marble columns and 11-foot statues characterizing "civilized life and thought." As complex as the project was, General Casey completed the Jefferson building on time and within his original budget appropriation of $6.5 million. He returned $150,000 remaining in the building fund to Congress.

As the Library's collections and staff continued to grow, Congress added the John Adams Building--designed at the height of the art deco period and opened in 1939--and the third largest building in Washington, the James Madison Memorial Building, which opened in 1980. A project to renovate and restore the Jefferson and Adams buildings was begun in 1986 and is expected to be completed in six years. The project includes upgrading all heating, ventilation, electrical, and plumbing facilities; the restoration and repair of all reorganization of the Library's diverse collections in order to make them more accessible to scholars and the general public.

Cataloging and Using the Collections

The first Librarian in the new building was a newspaperman with no library experience, John Russell Young. He quickly realized, however, that the Library had to get control of collections that had been piling up and overflowing the rooms in the Capitol. Young was able to set up organizational units and devise programs that changed the Library from essentially an acquisitions operation into an efficient processing factory that organized the materials and made them useful. Young was succeeded after only two years by Herbert Putnam, previously head of the Boston Public Library, who was destined to be Librarian of Congress for 40 years.

While Librarian Spofford had collected the materials, and Young had organized them, Putnam set out to insure that they would be used. He took the Library of Congress directly into the national library scene and made its holdings known and available to the smallest community library in the most distant part of the country. The familiar 3" x 5" library card stemmed from his idea of cataloging books as quickly as the Library of Congress received them via copyright deposit or exchange, and then selling the resulting catalog cards at cost to local libraries. Thus the smaller institutions would be spared the trouble and expense of doing the same work themselves when they bought the same book. In this way, the Library of Congress assumed a leadership role in the standardization of cataloging practices.

Putnam organized the Library's services to the blind, designing programs that at first loaned out brailled books and then later provided phonograph records with special machines for handicapped people. (The now-familiar 33-1/3 rpm record was invented for Putnam's purpose and was used in Library of Congress "talking books" for 14 years before the commercial world adopted it.) This Library of Congress program continues to open word windows for hundreds of thousands of people around the nation, principally through the use of tape cassettes and playback machines.

Legislative Reference Service

About 1912 both Librarian Putnam and members of Congress became concerned about the distance that was widening between the Library and its employer, the Congress. In the states, a new entity had begun to emerge, a "legislative reference bureau," which brought together a skilled team of librarians, economists, political scientists, and statisticians, whose only purpose was to serve the legislature and to respond quickly to the questions that arose in the legislative process. Congress wanted the same kind of service for itself, and Putnam designed such a unit for the Library of Congress. Called the Legislative Reference Service, it went into operation in 1914 to prepare indexes, digests, and compilations of law that the Congress might need, but it quickly became a specialized reference unit for information transfer and research. The service was the forerunner of the Library's current, distinguished Congressional Research Service.

Gifts to the Library

From Librarian Spofford's time on, the great jewels in the collections of the Library have come from individual Americans who have given either money or private treasures to the Library to be shared with the American people. Traditionally, the routine publications of the world have come in through copyright and exchange programs, but the special, unique, pieces have come as private gifts. The gift of the Coolidge Auditorium and the creation of the Coolidge Foundation for "the study, composition, and appreciation of music"; the creation of the Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation and the donation of rare Stradivarius instruments to be used for public performance; the Lessing J. Rosenwald collection of illustrated books and incunabula (books published in the dawn of printing, before 1501); Joseph Pennell's gift of Whistler drawings and letters; the private papers of President Lincoln from his son, Robert Todd Lincoln; and hundreds of thousands of letters and documents from musicians, artists, writers, scientists, and public figures are some examples of gifts to the Library of Congress that have enriched the cultural heritage of the nation.