Little Bits of History

Reference Work

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 24, 2014
Library of Congress

Library of Congress

April 24, 1800: The US Library of Congress is established. The first proposal for this reference library for members of Congress to use was put forth in 1783 by James Madison. It finally came to fruition on this date when President John Adams signed an Act of Congress allocating $5,000 for the purchase of “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress” as well as setting up an appropriate place to contain them. Initially, 740 books and 3 maps were purchased and housed in the new Capitol Building as the seat of government moved from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. It was Thomas Jefferson in 1802 who signed a bill into law which provided for the actual building of the Library of Congress.

Not only did Jefferson provide for the building but also established a presidential appointment for the post of Librarian of Congress and a Joint Committee on the Library which regulated and oversaw the Library and allowed for the President and Vice President to borrow books. The Library of Congress was destroyed in 1814 when the British came to town and set the Capitol as well as the library contained within on fire. About 3,000 volumes were lost. Within a month, former President Jefferson offered his personal library as a replacement. He had been collecting books for 50 years and had a wide-ranging selection of books, including some not normally seen in a legislative library – such as cookbooks.

By January 1815, Congress had approved the collection and appropriated $23,950 to purchase his 6,487 books. His books were those of a working scholar and not a gentleman’s collection of books and so it was deemed appropriate as a replacement. At Monticello, Jefferson had grouped his books according to Francis Bacon’s scheme with three main groups subdivided into 44 more smaller portions. The books were stored for Congress using this same plan until late in the 19th century when Herbert Putnam (as the Librarian) began to work on a more flexible Library of Congress Classification system which is now used for the more than 138 million items contained therein.

In 1815, another fire caused great damage to the Library and many of Jefferson’s books were lost to the flames. Only 2,000 of the original books remained after the second fire. Between 1998 and 2008, the librarians working at the Library were able to replace these lost books – all but the last 300 which are still missing. Over the years, the space housing the Library has increased proportionately to the number of items contained. Today, preservation is centered on digitalizing the collection. Today, there are more than 32 million books and other print material in 470 languages and more than 61 million manuscripts. It is the largest rare book collection in North America. Housed within are many collector items such as a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence and a Gutenberg Bible (one of three perfect vellum copies known to exist). Also included are more than 1 million US government publications and another million newspapers spanning the last three centuries.

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need. – Marcus Tullius Cicero

Books constitute capital. A library book lasts as long as a house, for hundreds of years. It is not, then, an article of mere consumption but fairly of capital, and often in the case of professional men, setting out in life, it is their only capital. – Thomas Jefferson

My Alma mater was books, a good library… I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity. – Malcolm X

A library is not a luxury but one of the necessities of life. – Henry Ward Beecher

Also on this day: Greeks Bearing Gifts – In 1184 BC, the Greeks bring a gift to Troy.
Soyuz 1 – In 1967, the first space fatality occurred.
Hershey’s Park – In 1907, Hersheypark opened.
Looking Outward – In 1990, mission STS-31 boosted into space with the Hubble Space Telescope aboard.

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4 Responses

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  1. hairballexpress said, on April 24, 2014 at 2:39 pm

    What a wonderfully inFURmative post! The human loves libraries and books (so do I- great napping spots)!

  2. sjn25 said, on April 25, 2014 at 4:53 am

    What a lovely post. Thomas Jefferson has gone up even further in my estimation. Donating his library can’t have been an easy thing to do – the man clearly loved his books.

    I look forward to visiting the Library of Congress, sometime in the future. I can thoroughly recommend the British Library.


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