Join me as I chat about the nation's largest public library - the Library of Congress.
From its establishment to its current collection, I share all about this fabulous institution.
Billington, James H. “The Library of Congress.” Britannica.com. Accessed August 5th, 2021. (LINK)
“History of the Library of Congress.” Library of Congress. Accessed August 5th, 2021. (LINK)
“The Library of Congress: A Timeline.” Library of Congress. Accessed August 5th, 2021. (LINK)
“Thomas Jefferson to Samuel H. Smith, 21 September 1814,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-07-02-0484-0003. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, vol. 7, 28 November 1813 to 30 September 1814, ed. J. Jefferson Looney. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010, pp. 681–684.] (LINK)
Voigt, Morgan. “10 Facts You Probably Didn’t Know About The Library Of Congress.” WAMU. DCIst.com, February 12, 2020. (LINK)
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Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey peeps, welcome back.
When I visited Washington DC a few years back, one of the items on my to see list was the Library of Congress. As a huge history dork I wanted to see the millions of volumes collected over the last two hundred plus years.
Unfortunately, among all the other four hundred must-see items, I missed my chance but this week I wanted to dive into the history of the Library of Congress.
What is the Library of Congress? When did it start? What does it do?
Grab your cup of coffee peeps, let's do this.
You might be surprised to learn the Library of Congress is not just one building. The library comprises several buildings all used to house the millions - and I do mean millions - of volumes of work from around the world. The most infamous is the main library located just east of the Capitol building on Independence Avenue.
Originally, the library was established as part of an act authorizing the moving of the capitol from Philadelphia to what was to become Washington, DC in 1800, making it the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States. Second president John Adams signed legislation providing for a $5,000 stipend to procure the appropriate books for the library as its original intention was to be a resource for members of congress. In a very typical government move, a committee was established to oversee the procurement, the first joint committee in the United States.
A library is nothing without a librarian and in 1802, Thomas Jefferson approved making the job of Librarian of Congress a presidential appointment, naming the first two librarians who also served as the clerk to the house of representatives. The framers were avid readers and the collection quickly grew, only to be destroyed during the War of 1812 when the British laid siege to the Capitol. On August 24, 1814, British forces advanced on the capitol building, where the library was housed, burning it to the ground. The fire caused the loss of roughly three thousand books and maps.
Upon hearing of the destruction, Jefferson offered his personal library as a replacement. Writing to friend Samuel Smith, Jefferson explained he was planning on offering his library to Congress once he passed away, but felt the library’s destruction provided an opportunity, saying quote “I have been sensible it out not to continue private property, and had provided that, at my death, Congress should have the refusal of it, at their own price, but the loss they have now incurred makes the present the proper moment for their accommodation.” end quote.
Jefferson asked his friend Smith to share his offer, explaining he would accept whatever price Congress was willing to pay. Congress took him up on his offer and for just under $24,000 they acquired 6,487 books. That comes out to about $4 a book - score!
Unfortunately, parts of Jefferson’s collection were also lost when another fire, this time in 1851, destroyed roughly 35,000 volumes - two thirds of which were books from Jefferson’s library. This second loss prompted some remodeling where a cast iron, fireproof room was put in the Capitol’s west front in 1853.
Ainsworth Rand Spofford, who served as librarian of congress from 1864 to 1897 was the first to push for the library to be accessible to the general public and to push for a separate site dedicated to the library. Books were crowding the capitol and as their volumes increased, the need for a separate building became evident. Dedicated to making the library a national, not political institution, Spofford convinced congress to fund construction of a separate building to the tune of 6.5 million dollars.
At its opening in 1897, the Library of Congress was the largest library in the world and was finally open to the public. And the library didn’t just collect books, but also held the papers of several founding fathers including Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin whose personal papers were previously housed at the state department. Thanks to an executive order signed by Teddy Roosevelt in 1903, the library not only gained access to the papers of the founding fathers, but also the remaining records of the continental congress. The library also hosts the papers of twenty-three former presidents. Even the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were housed at the library before being relocated to the National Archives in 1952.
The library continued to expand and require more space to house its massive holdings. Beginning in 1928, the library increased its collections to hold items such as catalogs and research publications. In 1930, President Herbert Hoover signed legislation providing extra funding to construct an annex now known as the John Adams building. The building, opened on January 3, 1939 was connected to the main library through a pneumatic tube system so books could easily be transported from building to building in a short amount of time. There were even tunnels built underneath the library of congress main building towards the capitol. The tunnels, which were six feet high, four feet wide and spanned eleven hundred feet included an electronic conveyor system to transport the books from the library to the capitol. These tunnels have since closed due to the construction of the capitol visitor’s center.
Since 1870, the library has also served as the main copyright office which contributes to the ever growing collection. The collection continued to grow so rapidly that by 1960, another new space was needed to house the various volumes. The third location, known as the James Madison Memorial building, is the largest library structure in the world and contains 1.5 million square feet of space. As someone who is constantly dealing with books piling up everywhere, I can only dream of enjoying that amount of space.
And though open to the public, the library of congress does not function as your typical, local library. It is considered a research library meaning you are more than welcome to come in and review the various volumes, however you are not allowed to check anything out. It seems only a select few high ranking government officials are given such distinction. I mean, why can’t I check out the papers of Susan B Anthony? Jeez.
Not quite done expanding, the library added a fourth location - the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation. Donated in 2007, the campus houses all of the movie, television and sound collections. This location is not even in DC, instead the campus sits some seventy miles away in Culpeper, Virginia. I also found a reference to a storage facility in Fort Meade, Maryland.
One of the coolest updates to the library is their efforts to digitize their content. Since the 90’s, the Librarians of Congress have worked to make their collection more widely available by posting scanned copies of newspapers, posters and other reference material on their website. I love having access to this material and often check the library’s website for any primary source material I can use for my episodes.
The current librarian of congress is Carla Hayden. Appointed in 2016, Hayden is the first African American appointed to the role and has been a champion of digitizing the Congress’ collection as well. In her welcome message on the library of congress website, Hayden writes, “the library preserves and provides access to a rich, diverse and enduring source of knowledge to inform, inspire and engage you in your intellectual and creative endeavors.” The library is in the middle of a four year work effort to further expand and build upon their digital collection and I think all the history nerds outside of the DC area agree when I say yes please.
Today, the library houses over 170 million volumes and remains the largest library in the world. It will only continue to grow as the library receives 15,000 deposits per work day and catalogs 10,000. Anything the library does not maintain is shared with other agencies, libraries and educational institutions. Nearly half of their collection of books are in languages other than English, representing roughly 470 languages. Something I also found fascinating in my research is that the library’s offices aren’t relegated to just the United States. Since 1962, the library has held international offices to aid in their collection efforts.
As I have hinted throughout the episode, the library does not simply hold books and personal papers. It also maintains the National Film Registry, the Copyright Office and houses over 17 million images. They even started collecting tweets before realizing the workload, later announcing they would only archive “selected” tweets. I sure hope none of mine make the cut.
Today, the library operates on a roughly 700 million budget and employs just over 3,000 permanent staff. Their main function is to serve as the research arm of congress, through a service known as the Congressional Research Service. According to their website, they responded to 802,000 research requests from members of congress and other public and federal agencies in 2020. In 2020 all I did was have virtual happy hours and binge the marvel universe. They’re making me feel like a slacker.
So if you find yourself in our nation’s capitol, consider a visit to the Library of Congress. Due to the pandemic, there are some extra provisions to be aware of so I would recommend checking out their website before you go - especially if we’re still in this nonsense by the time you are planning your trip.
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