The Library was founded in 1800, making it the oldest federal cultural institution in the nation. On August 24, 1814, British troops burned the Capitol building (where the Library was housed) and destroyed the Library's core collection of 3,000 volumes. On January 30, 1815, Congress approved the purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library of 6,487 books for $23,950.
The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, with more than 158 million items on approximately 838 miles of bookshelves. The collections include more than 36 million books and other print materials, 3.5 million recordings, 13.7 million photographs, 5.5 million maps, 6.7 million pieces of sheet music and 69 million manuscripts.
The Library receives some 15,000 items each working day and adds approximately 12,000 items to the collections daily. The majority of the collections are received through the Copyright registration process, as the Library is home to the U.S. Copyright Office. Materials are also acquired through gift, purchase, other government agencies (state, local and federal), Cataloging in Publication (a pre-publication arrangement with publishers) and exchange with libraries in the United States and abroad. Items not selected for the collections or other internal purposes are used in the Library’s national and international exchange programs. Through these exchanges the Library acquires material that would not be available otherwise. The remaining items are made available to other federal agencies and are then available for donation to educational institutions, public bodies and nonprofit tax-exempt organizations in the United States.
Since 1962, the Library of Congress has maintained offices abroad to acquire, catalog and preserve library and research materials from countries where such materials are essentially unavailable through conventional acquisitions methods. Overseas offices in New Delhi (India), Cairo (Egypt), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Jakarta (Indonesia), Nairobi (Kenya) and Islamabad (Pakistan) collectively acquire materials from more than 60 countries and acquire materials on behalf of United States libraries participating in the Cooperative Acquisitions Program. The Library is also collaborating with institutions around the globe to develop a World Digital Library.
Approximately half of the Library’s book and serial collections are in languages other than English. The collections contain materials in some 470 languages.
African and Middle Eastern Materials
The Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division holds 600,000 volumes in the non-Roman script languages of the region.
The Library's Asian Division collection holds some 2.8 million items, the largest assemblage of Chinese, Japanese and Korean materials outside of Asia, and one of the largest Tibetan collections in the world.
European, Iberian, Latin American and Caribbean Materials
The Library holds the largest collection of Russian-language materials in the United States and the largest outside of Russia (more than 750,000 items). The Library’s Iberian, Latin American and Caribbean collections, comprising more than 10 million items (books, journals, newspapers, maps, manuscripts, photographs, posters, recordings, sheet music and other materials) are the largest and most complete in the world.
The Law Library of Congress is the world's largest law library, with 2.9 million volumes, including one of the world's best rare law book collections and the most complete collection of foreign legal gazettes in the United States. The Law Library contains United States congressional publications dating back to the nation's founding. The Law Library has been working with member nations to share legal material in the vernacular on the Global Legal Information Network.
Rare Books and Manuscripts
The Library holds the largest rare-book collection in North America (more than 700,000 volumes), including the largest collection of 15th-century books in the Western Hemisphere. The collection also includes the first known book printed in North America, “The Bay Psalm Book” (1640).
The Library possesses approximately 100 extremely rare children's books, including “The Children's New Play-Thing” (Philadelphia, 1763) and “The Children's Bible” (Philadelphia, 1763).
The smallest book in the Library of Congress is “Old King Cole.” It is 1/25” x 1/25”, or about the size of the period at the end of this sentence.
The largest book in the Library of Congress is a 5-by-7 foot book featuring color images of Bhutan. With support from Microsoft, a team of students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recorded the ancient life and culture in this Southeast Asian country and made 40,000 digital images available to the Bhutan National Archives. A copy of the picture book was donated to the Library of Congress.
Oldest Example of Printing
One of the oldest examples of printing in the world – passages from a Buddhist sutra, or discourse, printed in 770 A.D. – is housed in the Library’s Asian Division. The oldest written material in the Library is a cuneiform tablet dating from 2040 B.C.
Foremost among the Manuscript Division's holdings are the papers of 23 presidents, ranging from George Washington to Calvin Coolidge.
The Gutenberg Bible, one of the treasures of the Library of Congress, was purchased in 1930. The 15th-century work is one of three perfect copies on vellum in the world.
Audio-Visual and Performing Arts Collections
Prints and Photographs Division
The Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress contains more than 14.4 million visual images, including the most comprehensive international collection of posters in the world, the most comprehensive visual record of the Civil War, and pioneering documentation of America's historic architecture. More than 1 million images are accessible on the Prints and Photographs online catalog.
Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound
Opened in 2007, the Library’s Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Va., was designed for the acquisition, cataloging, storage and preservation of the nation’s collection of moving images and recorded sounds. In partnership with the Packard Humanities Institute, the U.S. Congress and the Architect of the Capitol, the Library’s state-of-the-art facility houses the largest and most comprehensive collection of American and foreign-produced films, television broadcasts and sound recordings. The facility houses 6 million items, including more than 3.5 million sound recordings and 1.7 million film, television and video items, representing over a century of audiovisual production.
The Library holds the most comprehensive collection of American music in the world, more than 22 million items including 6.7 million pieces of sheet music. The collection includes an extensive assemblage of original manuscripts by composers of the American musical theater and the largest collection of any one kind of musical instrument (flute) in the world. The Library sponsors a long-running broadcast concert series of chamber music.
American Folklife Center and Veterans History Project
With more than 1.5 million items, the Archive of Folk Culture in the American Folklife Center (AFC) is the largest repository of traditional cultural documentation in the United States and one of the largest in the world. It contains the largest collection of American Indian music and spoken word, including the earliest ethnographic field recordings made anywhere in the world. The AFC administers the Veterans History Project, which was established by Congress in 2000 to preserve the reminiscences of the nation’s war veterans. To date, more than 89,000 submissions have been collected, including many from members of Congress. Selected stories are accessible on the project's website. The AFC also administers the StoryCorps project, a nationwide grassroots initiative to record the oral histories of ordinary citizens. The collections will be preserved and made accessible in the Library of Congress.
Other Fascinating Facts
Digital Talking Books
Since 1931, the Library has provided books to the blind in braille and on sound recordings. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped is in the process of replacing its inventory of recordings on audio cassettes with newly developed Digital Talking Books and digital playback equipment.
The Library's Geography and Map Division holds 5.5 million items, the world's largest collection of cartographic materials. It has the largest collection of fire-insurance maps of cities and towns in the United States, providing unparalleled coverage of the growth of urban America from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries. The collection also includes the 1507 world map by Martin Waldseemüller, known as "America’s Birth Certificate," the first document on which the name "America" appears.
The Library’s general collections contain the largest historical collection of U.S. telephone criss-cross (phone number and address) and city directories in the world. The Library acquires more than 8,000 volumes a year and holds more than 124,000 telephone books and microfilmed city directories from 650 U.S. cities and towns. This vast collection includes historical foreign telephone books and city directories (almost 1,500 per year received from more than 100 countries).
Comic Books and Newspapers
The Library’s Serial and Government Publications Division contains the world's largest collection of comic books (5,000 titles; 100,000 issues). The oldest comic book in the collection is “Popular Comics,” February 1936. The division also holds the world's most extensive newspaper collection. The oldest original newspaper in the collection is "Mercurius Publicas Comprising the Sum of Forraign Intelligence," December 29, 1659.
Scientific and Technical Information
The Library of Congress has one of the largest and most diverse collections of scientific and technical information in the world. Such material makes up roughly one-fourth of its total book and journal collection. The Library's Science, Technology and Business Division maintains this country's largest collections of technical reports and standards (some 4.4 million foreign and domestic items).