Jefferson's Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress

Contents - Preface - Library of Congress - Collections
Buildings - Librarians - Further Reading - Concordance


The Library of Congress occupies a unique place in American civilization. Established as a legislative library in 1800, it grew into a national institution in the nineteenth century. Since World War II, it has become an international resource of unparalleled dimensions.

Thumbnail image of The Jefferson Building The Jefferson Building. (Photograph by Jim Higgins)

In 1950, the sesquicentennial year of the Library of Congress, the eminent librarian S. R. Ranganathan paid the Library and the U.S. Congress an unusual tribute:

The institution serving as the national library of the United States is perhaps more fortunate than its predecessors in other countries. It has the Congress as its godfather...This stroke of good fortune has made it perhaps the most influential of all the national libraries of the world.[1]

Forty-two years later, the Library built by the U.S. Congress has achieved an even greater degree of prominence. Since 1950 the size of its collections and staff have tripled, and its annual appropriation has soared from $9 million to more than $330 million. With collections totaling more than 100 million items, a staff of nearly 5,000 persons, and services unmatched in scope by any other research library, the Library of Congress is one of the world's leading cultural institutions. [2]

The diversity of the Library of Congress is startling. Simultaneously it serves as: a legislative library and the major research arm of the U.S. Congress; the copyright agency of the United States; a center for scholarship that collects research materials in many media and in most subjects from throughout the world in more that 450 languages; a public institution that is open to everyone over high school age and serves readers in twenty-two reading rooms; a government library that is heavily used by the executive branch and the judiciary; a national library for the blind and physically handicapped; an outstanding law library; one of the world's largest providers of bibliographic data and products; a center for the commissioning and performance of chamber music; the home of the nation's poet laureate; the sponsor of exhibitions and of musical, literary, and cultural programs that reach across the nation and the world; a research center for the preservation and conservation of library materials; and the world's largest repository of maps, atlases, printed and recorded music, motion pictures and television programs.

Thumbnail image of the dome of the Main Reading Room A researcher stands under the dome of the Main Reading Room of the first Library of Congress building, now named for Thomas Jefferson. (Photograph by Reid Baker)

The Library of Congress occupies three massive structures on Capitol Hill, near the U.S. Capitol. The Jefferson Building, opened in 1897, is a grand monument to civilization, culture, and American achievement. The functional Adams Building was opened to the public in 1939. The modern Madison Building, completed in 1980, is by far the largest structure. About two million researchers, scholars, and tourists visit the Library of Congress each year and millions more use its services.

Since its creation, the Library of Congress has been part of the legislative branch of the American government, and even though it is recognized as the de facto national library of the United States, it does not have that official designation. Nevertheless, it performs the functions performed by national libraries elsewhere and has become a symbol of American democracy and faith in the power of learning.

How did a library established by the legislature for its own use become such an ambitious, multipurpose institution? Two points are clear: the expansion of the Library's functions derives from the expansion of its collections, and the growth of the institution is tied to the growth and ambitions of the entire American nation. The development of the Library of Congress cannot be separated from the history of the nation it serves. Nor can it be separated from the philosophy and ideals of Thomas Jefferson, its principal founder.

The Library of Congress was established as the fledgling legislature of the new Republic prepared to move from Philadelphia to the new capital city of Washington. On April 24, 1800, Pres. John Adams approved legislation that appropriated $5,000 to purchase "such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress." The first books, ordered from London, arrived in 1801 and were stored in the U.S. Capitol, the Library's first home. The collection consisted of 740 volumes and three maps.

On January 26, 1802, Pres. Thomas Jefferson approved the first law defining the role and functions of the new institution. This measure created the post of Librarian of Congress and gave Congress, through a Joint Committee on the Library, the authority to establish the Library's budget and its rules and regulations. From the beginning, however, the institution was more than just a legislative library, for the 1802 law made the appointment of the Librarian of Congress a presidential responsibility. It also permitted the president and vice president to borrow books, a privilege that, in the next three decades, was extended to most government agencies and to the judiciary. A separate law department was approved in 1832, along with an appropriation to purchase law books under the guidance of the chief justice of the United States.

Three developments in the Library's early history permanently established the institution's national roots. First, the Library of Congress was created by the national legislature, which took direct responsibility for its operation. Second, the Library of Congress served as the first library of the American government itself. Finally, in 1815, the scope of the Library's collection was permanently expanded. The ideals, intellectual curiosity, and pragmatism of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) were the keys to this transformation.

Jefferson believed that the power of the intellect could shape a free and democratic society. As a man who stated he could not live without books, he took a keen interest in the Library of Congress and its collection while he was president of the United States from 1801-1809. Throughout his presidency, he personally recommended books for the Library, and he appointed the first two Librarians of Congress. In 1814, the British army invaded the city of Washington and burned the Capitol, including the 3,000-volume Library of Congress. By then retired to Monticello, Jefferson offered to sell his personal library, the largest and finest in the country, to the Congress to "recommence" its library. The purchase of Jefferson's 6,487 volumes for $23,940 was approved in 1815.

The library that Jefferson sold to Congress not only included over twice the number of volumes that had been in the destroyed Library of Congress, it also expanded the scope of the Library far beyond the bounds of a legislative library devoted primarily to legal, economic, and historical works. Jefferson was a man of encyclopedic interests, and his library included works on architecture, the arts, science, literature, and geography. His library contained books in French, Spanish, German, Latin, Greek, and one three-volume statistical work in Russian. He believed that the American legislature needed ideas and information on all subjects and in many languages in order to govern a democracy. Anticipating the argument that his collection might be too comprehensive, he argued that there was "no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer." [3]

The acquisition by Congress of Jefferson's library provided the base for the expansion of the Library's functions. The Jeffersonian concept of universality is the rationale for the comprehensive collecting policies of today's Library of Congress. Jefferson's belief in the power of knowledge and the direct link between knowledge and democracy shaped the Library's philosophy of sharing its collections and services as widely as possible.

One congressman who favored the purchase of Jefferson's library expressed a growing cultural nationalism in the United States when he argued that it would make "a most admirable substratum for a National Library." Many Americans, aware of the cultural dependence of the United States on Europe, were anxious that their country establish its own traditions and institutions. For example, an editorial in the July 15, 1815, (Washington, D.C.) daily National Intelligencer pointed out: "In all civilized nations of Europe there are national libraries...In a country of such general intelligence as this, the Congressional or National Library of the United States [should] become the great repository of the literature of the world."

Yet even as the Library was beginning to grow, it appeared that the Smithsonian Institution might become the American national library. During the early 1850s the Smithsonian's talented and aggressive librarian, Charles Coffin Jewett, tried to move the institution in that direction and turn it into a national bibliographical center. Jewett's efforts were opposed, however, by Smithsonian secretary Joseph Henry, who insisted that the Smithsonian focus on scientific research and publication. In fact, the secretary favored the eventual development of a national library at the Library of Congress, which he viewed as the appropriate foundation for "a collection of books worthy of a Government whose perpetuity principally depends on the intelligence of the people." On July 10, 1854, Henry dismissed Jewett, ending any possibility that the Smithsonian might become the national library. Moreover, twelve years later, Henry readily agreed to the transfer of the entire forty thousand-volume library of the Smithsonian Institution to the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress suffered difficult times during the 1850s. The growing intersectional rivalry between North and South hindered the strengthening of any government institution. Furthermore, in late 1851 the most serious fire in the Library's history destroyed about two-thirds of its fifty-five thousand volumes, including two-thirds of Jefferson's library. Congress responded quickly and generously: in 1852 a total of $168,700 was appropriated to restore the Library's rooms in the Capitol and to replace the lost books. But the books were to be replaced only, with no particular intention of supplementing or expanding the collection. This policy reflected the conservative philosophy of Librarian of Congress John Silva Meehan and Sen. James A. Pearce of Maryland, the chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library, who favored keeping a strict limit on the Library's activities.

A few years later the Library lost several collection-building functions, further impeding its progress toward the comprehensive collection that Mr. Jefferson had favored. In the 1830s and 1840s, the Library of Congress had begun distributing public documents to institutions throughout the United States and exchanging books and documents with foreign institutions on behalf of the U.S. government. A joint resolution of Congress in 1857 transferred responsibility for public document distribution to the Bureau of Interior and responsibility for international exchange of books and documents to the Department of State. Moreover, in 1859 all U.S. copyright activities were centralized at the Patent Office, which meant that the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution no longer received the copies of books and pamphlets deposited for copyright that had been sent to each institution since 1846.

Two years later, in 1861, newly elected president Abraham Lincoln replaced Librarian Meehan with John G. Stephenson, an Indiana physician. Stephenson served a relatively short term of four years as Librarian. A political appointee, his major concerns were outside the Library. In fact, he was a volunteer aide-de-camp at the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. As the Civil War came to a close, the Library had a staff of only seven and a collection of only eighty thousand volumes; nonetheless, thanks to the vision and impetus of Thomas Jefferson, its national character was indisputable.

Thumbnail image of 
Charleston Mercury broadside of December 20, 1860 This Charleston Mercury broadside of December 20, 1860, housed in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, is but one of the many thousands of items in the Library's unparalleled Civil War collections.

The person responsible for transforming the Library of Congress into an institution of national significance in the Jeffersonian spirit was Ainsworth Rand Spofford, a former Cincinnati bookseller and journalist who served as Librarian of Congress from 1865 until 1897. Spofford accomplished this task by permanently linking the legislative and national functions of the Library, first in practice and then, through the 1897 reorganization of the Library, in law. He provided his successors as Librarian with four essential prerequisites for the development of an American national library; (1) firm, bipartisan congressional support for the notion of the Library of Congress as both a legislative and a national library; (2) the beginning of a comprehensive collection of Americana; (3) a magnificent new building, itself a national monument; and (4) a strong and independent office of Librarian of Congress. It was Spofford who had the interest, skill, and perseverance to capitalize on the Library of Congress's claim to a national role. Each Librarian of Congress since Spofford has built upon his accomplishments. Each has shaped the institution in a different way, but none has wavered from Jefferson's belief that the democratic form of government depended on a comprehensive base of knowledge and information.

The idea of an American national library that Spofford revived had been languishing since Jewett's departure from the Smithsonian in 1854. Spofford and Jewett shared several ideas relating to a national library; in particular, both recognized the importance of copyright deposit in developing a comprehensive collection of a nation's literature. Yet there was a major difference in their views. Spofford never envisioned the Library of Congress as the center of a network of American libraries, a focal point for providing other libraries with cataloging and bibliographic services. Instead, he viewed it, in the European model, as a unique, independent institution---a single, comprehensive collection of a nation's literature to be used both by Congress and the American people. Congress needed such a collection because, as Spofford paraphrased Jefferson, "there is almost no work, within the vast range of literature and science, which may not at some time prove useful to the legislature of a great nation." It was imperative, he felt, that such a great national collection be shared with all citizens, for the United States was "a Republic which rests upon the popular intelligence." [4]

Thumbnail image of Ulysses S. Grant Thumbnail image of Robert E. LeeMathew B. Brady provided an invaluable service to history when he organized a staff of field photographers who compiled an extraordinary pictorial record of the Civil War. Among the portraits of Civil War commanders included in the Library's Brady-Handy Collection in the Prints and Photographs Division are those of the ultimately victorious Ulysses S. Grant, who had found a moment to relax with his wife and son, and revered Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

Immediately after the Civil War, American society began a rapid transformation; one of the major changes was the expansion of the federal government. Spofford took full advantage of the favorable political and cultural climate and the increasing national confidence to promote the Library's expansion. He always believed that the Library of Congress was the national library and he used every conceivable argument to convince others, particularly the Joint Committee on the Library and their colleagues in the rest of Congress.

In the first years of his administration Spofford obtained congressional approval of six laws or resolutions that ensured a national role for the Library of Congress. The legislative acts were: an appropriation providing for the expansion of the Library in the Capitol building, approved in early 1865; the copyright amendment of 1865, which once again brought copyright deposits into the Library's collection; the Smithsonian deposit of 1866, whereby the entire library of the Smithsonian Institution, a collection especially strong in scientific materials, was transferred to the Library; the 1867 purchase, for $100,000, of the private library of historian and archivist Peter Force, establishing the foundation of the Library's Americana and incunabula collections; the international exchange resolution of 1867, providing for the development of the Library's collection of foreign public documents; and the Copyright Act of 1870, which brought all U.S. copyright registration and deposit activities to the Library.

The centralization of copyright activities at the Library was Spofford's most impressive collection-building feat. The first U.S. copyright law was approved in 1790, but the practice of depositing items registered for copyright protection in libraries for use was not enacted until 1846, when the newly established Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress obtained the privilege. The Library of Congress received single copies of deposits from 1846 until 1859 and, thanks to Spofford, the practice started again in 1865. Enforcement was a problem, however, and Spofford decided he needed the authority that would come from centralizing all registration and deposit activities at the Library, consolidating functions then performed at the Patent Office and by the district courts. The copyright law of 1870 ensured the continuing development of the Library's Americana collections, for it stipulated that two copies of every book, pamphlet, map, print, photograph, and piece of music registered for copyright be deposited in the Library, a requirement that certainly would have met with Jefferson's approval. The international copyright law of 1891, which gave protection to works of foreign origin under certain conditions of reciprocal protection added further luster to the Library's collections, for it brought deposits of foreign works into the Library for the first time.

Thumbnail image of the need for space in the 
Library's quarters in the Capitol By 1890, the need for space in the Library's quarters in the Capitol was desperate -- books and mailbags were piled high. The situation was eased considerably when the Library was moved to its own building in 1897.

In its 1876 survey of the libraries of the United States, the U.S. Bureau of Education listed the rapidly growing Library of Congress and the Boston Public Library as the two largest libraries in the United States, with approximately 300,000 volumes apiece. By 1897, when the Library moved from its overcrowded rooms in the Capitol across the east plaza into its spacious new building, its collections ranked first among American libraries in size and scope. Over 40 percent of its 840,000 volumes and at least 90 percent of its map, music, and graphic arts collections had been acquired through copyright deposit. Important items deposited through copyright included Civil War photographs by Mathew Brady and what are usually considered the first motion pictures.

The copyright privilege not only influenced the development of the Library's collections, it also helped determine the direction of their growth. When the Library of Congress moved into its new building, separate custodial units were established for the special collections formed primarily through copyright deposit---maps, music, and graphic arts. Spofford's successors as Librarian of Congress hired subject specialists to develop these and other collections and persuaded Congress to begin appropriating substantial funds for the purchase of research materials for all collections. Today, copyright is still one of the Library's major acquisitions sources, but between the years 1865 and 1897, it played a crucial role in the development of the Library of Congress into a national institution.

Thumbnail image of Magna 
Carta, printed in gold letters with watercolor initials in London in 
1816 Thumbnail image of space occupied 
by the Law Library when it was located in the Capital. In 1832, when the Law Library was established as a separate department of the Library of Congress, its collections included just over two thousand volumes, 639 of which had been part of Thomas Jefferson's library. The photograph shows the space occupied by the Law Library when it was located in the Capital. Now in the Madison Building, the Law Library holds over two million items, from the mundane to the magnificent -- including the Magna Carta, printed in gold letters with watercolor initials in London in 1816.

The copyright law of 1870 had another major effect: it forced the construction of a building for the Library. Spofford foresaw this result almost immediately. In the Librarian's 1871 annual report he suggested that a separate building might be needed because of the increased receipts resulting from the new copyright law. The next year he presented a plan for such a building, initiating an endeavor that soon dominated his librarianship. In the twenty-five year struggle to make the building a reality, Spofford enlisted the support of many powerful public figures: congressmen, cultural leaders, journalists, and even presidents. The speeches and statements he elicited usually endorsed not only a separate building, but also the concept of the Library of Congress as a national library.

Spofford's most dependable supporters were two senators, both personal friends and frequent users of his Library: Justin S. Morrill of Vermont and Daniel W. Voorhees of Indiana. In March 1879, Morrill delivered a major speech in which he strongly endorsed a separate Library building and Spofford's national library concept:

We must either reduce the Library to the stinted and specific wants of Congress alone, or permit it to advance to national importance, and give it room equal to the culture, wants, and resources of a great people. The higher education of our common country demands that this institution shall not be crippled for lack of room. [5]
Senator Voorhees, chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library, was more passionate. In a May 1880 speech, he expressed his very Jeffersonian belief in the essential moral value of books and intellectual activity:
Let us therefore give this great national library our love and our care. Nothing can surpass it in importance. Knowledge is power, the power to maintain free government and preserve constitutional liberty. Without it the world grows dark and the human race takes up its backward race to the regions of barbarism. I cannot believe that the plain imperative duty of Congress on the subject of its Library will be longer neglected. [6]

Such eloquence, plus behind-the-scenes efforts by Morrill, Voorhees, and Spofford, finally resulted in the 1886 in authorization for a structure directly across the east plaza from the Capitol. After further delays, construction began in earnest in 1889 and the new building, opened to the public in 1897, was immediately hailed as a national monument. Now called the Thomas Jefferson Building, this imposing structure in the style of the Italian Renaissance, with its grand Main Reading Room at the center and exuberant interior decoration throughout, is an incomparable symbol of the universality of knowledge.

Thumbnail image of A wonderful collaboration among architects, craftsmen, artists and workmen, the first Library of Congress building was authorized in 1886 and completed in 1897. Among the important steps in its construction was the placing of the keystone in the southwest clerestory arch, memorialized here in a photograph from the Prints and Photographs Division.

To Spofford also goes primary credit for beginning the Library's tradition of broad public service. In 1865 he extended the hours of service, so that the Library was open every weekday all year. In 1869 he began advocating evening hours, but Congress did not approve this innovation until 1898. Finally, in 1870 Spofford reinstated the earlier policy of lending books directly to the public if an appropriate sum was left on deposit, a procedure that remained in effect until 1894, when preparations were started for the move into the new Library building.

Thumbnail image of Battle of the Fish Thumbnail image of engraving of three musicians on horseback The Library's Fine Prints Collection spans four centuries and includes the work of artists from many countries. Housed in the Prints and Photographs Division, the collection is among the world's largest, containing some 100,000 images including woodcuts, engravings, etchings, lithographs, silk screens, and other graphic material. Battle of the Fish, a hand-colored woodcut, is by German master Max Ernst (1891-1976). An earlier German master, Daniel Hopfer (florurit 1490-1536) created this engraving of three musicians on horseback.

In 1896, just before the actual move, the Joint Library Committee held hearings about the condition of the Library and its possible reorganization. The hearings provided an occasion for a detailed examination of the Library's history and present functions and for a review of what new functions the Library might perform once it occupied the spacious new building. The American Library Association sent six witnesses, including future Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam from the Boston Public Library and Melvil Dewey from New York State Library. Members of Congress listened with great interest to the testimony of Putnam and Dewey, who argued that the national services of the Library should be greatly expanded. Dewey felt that the Library of Congress now had the opportunity to act as a true national library, which he defined as "a center to which the libraries of the whole country can turn for inspiration, guidance, and practical help, which can be rendered so economically and efficiently in no other possible way." [7]

Thumbnail image of copyright deposits, photographed as they 
were waiting to be sorted, counted, and classified Among the approximately eight hundred tons of books, pamphlets, maps, manuscripts, prints, pieces of music, and other materials moved into the first Library of Congress building in 1897 were these copyright deposits, photographed as they were waiting to be sorted, counted, and classified.

Testimony at the 1896 hearings greatly influenced the reorganization of the Library, which was incorporated into the Legislative Appropriations Act approved February 19, 1897, and became effective on July 1, 1897. In accordance with the recommendations of Spofford, Putnam, Dewey, and the other officials who testified, all phases of the Library's activities were expanded. The size of the staff was increased from 42 to 108, and new administrative units were established for the reading room, the art gallery (graphic arts), maps and charts, and the cataloging, copyright, manuscripts, music, and periodicals departments. During his thirty-two years in office, and with the consent of the Joint Library Committee, Librarian Spofford had assumed full responsibility for directing the Library's affairs. This authority formally passed to the Office of the Librarian of Congress in the 1897 reorganization, for the Librarian explicitly was assigned sole responsibility for making the "rules and regulations for the government" of the Library, including the selection of its staff. The same reorganization act stipulated that the president's appointment of a Librarian of Congress thereafter was to be approved by the Senate.

Pres. William McKinley appointed a new Librarian of Congress to supervise the move from the Capitol and implement the new reorganization. He was John Russell Young, who held office briefly, from July 1, 1897, until his death in January 1899. A journalist and former diplomat, Young was a skilled administrator who worked hard to strengthen both the comprehensiveness of the collections and the scope of the services provided to Congress. He honored Jefferson's influence on the Library, bringing Jefferson's books into a special room and commissioning a report on the Jefferson library that was published in the Library's 1898 annual report.

Young used his diplomatic ties and experience to enlarge the Library's collections. In February 1898, for example, he sent a letter to U.S. diplomatic and consular representatives throughout the world, asking them to send "to the national library" newspapers, journals, pamphlets, manuscripts, broadsides, "documents illustrative of the history of those various nationalities now coming to our shores to blend into our national life," and other categories of research materials, broadly summarized as "whatever, in a word, would add to the sum of human knowledge." By the end of 1898, books and other materials had been received from eleven legations and seven consulates.

Young skillfully guided the administrative reorganization. He made many important professional appointments, including Thorvald Solberg, the first register of copyrights, and catalogers J.C.M. Hanson and Charles Martel, who began reclassifying the collections after nearly a century of reliance on the classification scheme Thomas Jefferson provided to the Library along with his books. While himself a political appointee, Young was nonpartisan in his appointments and successfully distanced the Library of Congress from the world of partisan politics.

Young also inaugurated what today is one of the Library's best known national activities, library service for the blind and physically handicapped. In November of 1897 the Library began a program of daily readings for the blind in a special "pavilion for the blind" complete with its own library. In 1913 Congress directed the American Printing House for the Blind to begin depositing embossed books in the Library, and in 1931 a separate appropriation was authorized for providing "books for the use of adult blind residents of the United States."

Herbert Putnam, Young's successor, was appointed by Pres. McKinley in the spring of 1899 and served as Librarian of Congress for forty years, until the autumn of 1939. Asked to characterize the Library as he neared the end of his long career, Putnam penned the phrase "Universal in Scope: National in Service." This view marked his entire tenure, for if Spofford was the principal collection-builder, Putnam was the Librarian who did the most to extend the Library's use to the American people. He created a systematic program of widespread public use that exists to this day, opening up the collections to scholars, the public, and to other libraries. The first experienced librarian to serve as Librarian of Congress, Putnam established a working partnership between the Library of Congress and the American library movement. Rather than serving merely as a great national accumulation of books, a national library should, he felt, actively serve other libraries.

In the quarter century before Putnam took office, a new structure of scientific and scholarly activity had evolved rapidly in the United States. Professional schools and new universities offering graduate work were established; numerous professional associations and societies came into existence; and the federal government became an active supporter of education, research, and scientific activity. By 1900, the age of the great library had arrived in America; its characteristics included huge book stacks, scientific cataloging and classification, and full-time professional staffs.

By the end of 1901 the Library of Congress, the first American library to reach one million volumes, had started organizing its enormous collections of recorded knowledge for public service and become the leader among American libraries.

Putnam's actions in 1901 were imaginative and decisive and were approved by both the Joint Library Committee and the professional library community. In that year, for example, the first volume of a completely new classification scheme, based on the Library's own collections, was published; access to the Library was extended to "scientific investigators and duly qualified individuals" throughout the United States; an interlibrary loan service was inaugurated; and the sale and distribution of Library of Congress printed catalog cards began.

The interlibrary loan system established by Putnam in 1901 was a radical step, for it signaled the institution's transition from a national storehouse of books to a national laboratory or workshop for promoting the use of its collections. When asked to defend his position of sending books outside the Library, the Librarian explained that the risk was worth it because "a book used, is after all, fulfilling a higher mission than a book which is merely being preserved for possible future use." [8]

Librarian Putnam's extension of the Library's classification and cataloging schemes to the rest of the nation helped "democratize" knowledge, nationally and internationally, for it established bibliographic standards and encouraged cooperative endeavors among librarians and scholars. This sharing of the Library's "bibliographic apparatus" helped shape and systematize intellectual activity in America and propelled the Library of Congress into a position of leadership among the world's research institutions.. [9]

The development of the Library's collections into a nationally useful resource took many forms. To aid historical research, Putnam felt that the national library "should be able to offer original sources" about the national life. [10] In 1903, he persuaded his friend and supporter, Pres. Theodore Roosevelt, to issue an executive order that transferred the papers of many of the nation's founding fathers, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, from the State Department archives to the Library's Manuscript Division. In 1904, the Library began publishing important historical texts from its collections, such as the Journals of the Continental Congress. Putnam felt the publication of such manuscripts was "not perhaps so much a service from us as a library as a duty from us as the custodians of original sources for American history."

Thumbnail image of Part of the James Madison Papers in the Manuscript Division "Father of the Constitution" James Madison took these notes May 28, 1787, as the Constitutional Convention debated the provisions of the document which has provided a sturdy foundation for the government of the United States for over two hundred years. Part of the James Madison Papers in the Manuscript Division, the notes attest to Madison's profound intellectual contributions to the new country.

As American influence and interests began to expand in the twentieth century, Putnam looked abroad to build the Library's collections, boldly applying Jefferson's dictum that no subject was beyond the possible concern of Congress or the American people. The Librarian was especially farsighted in acquiring research materials about other countries and cultures. In 1904 he purchased a four-thousand volume library of Indica, explaining in the Library's annual report that he "could not ignore the opportunity to acquire a unique collection which scholarship thought worthy of prolonged, scientific, and enthusiastic research, even though the immediate use of such a collection may prove meager." In 1906 he acquired the famous eighty-thousand volume private library of Russian literature owned by G. V. Yudin of Siberia, even sending a staff member to Russia to supervise the packing and shipping of the books. The Schatz collection of early opera librettos was purchased from a German collector in 1908. Large and important collections of Hebraica and Chinese and Japanese books also were acquired.

Thumbnail image of copies of military and law books In the early 1930s, the Library purchased 2,600 volumes from the book collections of the Romanov family. The Russian Imperial Collection includes biographies, works of literature, and military, social, and administrative histories, held chiefly by the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. The Law Library, however, received copies of military and law books. The ornate pink volume probably belonged to Catherine the Great. (Photograph by Reid Baker)

In one notable instance, Congress took the initiative in building the Library's collections. In December 1929, ignoring the stock market crash two months earlier, Congressman Ross Collins of Mississippi proposed the purchase for $1.5 million of the three-thousand volume collection of early books assembled by collector Otto F. Vollbehr, which included one of three perfect existing vellum copies of the Gutenberg Bible. Congressman Albert Johnson of Washington, in the debate in the House of Representatives, maintained that "even if times are hard," Congress should purchase the collection because "it is all for the United States of America which is going to live we hope for thousands of years." Putnam, testifying before the Senate Library Committee, added his endorsement to the enthusiasm expressed by the House of Representatives. He reminded the committee that in 1815, the government paid Thomas Jefferson nearly $24,000 for his library, and "in proportion to the resources of the country that sum was not much short of the million and a half" asked for the Vollbehr collection. Moreover, "what was true of that purchase is certainly true of the one before you. It would form ‘a most admirable substratum for a (greater) national library.'" The purchase was approved in 1930 and Putnam went to Europe to bring the Gutenberg Bible to American shores. [11]

Thumbnail image of One of three perfect copies of the 
Gutenberg Bible One of three perfect copies of the Gutenberg Bible, shown in detail, came to the Library of Congress in 1930, after Congress approved acquisition of the Vollbehr collection of incunabula (items printed between 1450 and 1500). Among the Library's greatest treasures, the Bible represents one of the world's most astonishing technological inventions -- the technique of printing by individual, movable pieces of type. (Photograph by Reid Baker)

The Library's foremost function, support for the legislature, was strengthened in 1914 when the Legislative Reference Service was established as a separate administrative unit. Its creation was a natural development in the progressive era, when many people in business and public life advocated the "scientific" (and Jeffersonian) use of information to solve problems. Specialized library units for legislative research were established in several states, notably Wisconsin, during the early 1900s. By the second decade of the century, the legislative reference movement reached the national legislature. In his 1913 testimony before the Senate, Putnam explained the function of the proposed legislative reference bureau within the Library:

What we do not do, and what a legislative reference division in the Library would do, is to select out of this great collection--now 2,000,000 books and pamphlets---the material that may bear upon one or another of the topics under consideration by Congress or that are likely to be under consideration, or that come up under particular discussions. [12]

In other words, the Library would begin providing the Congress a research service. In 1915 the Librarian reported that the new legislative service was anticipating questions from Congress on: "the conservation bills, so-called," the merchant marine, the government of the Philippines, immigration, convict-made goods, railroad securities, federal aid in road making, publicity in campaign contributions, and a national budget system.[13]

While enhancing established functions Putnam also moved the Library in new directions. A major avenue for the Librarian's innovations was the Library of Congress Trust Fund Board Act of 1925, which enabled the institution to accept gifts and bequests from private citizens. This legislation created a new cultural role for the Library.

A proposal from a private citizen, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, led directly to the creation of the Trust Fund Board. She offered an endowment to the Library for promoting the appreciation and understanding of music. She also offered to pay for a concert hall within the Library's building, to support the commissioning of new works of music, and to provide the chief of the Music Division with a generous honorarium. Prominent individuals such as James B. Wilbur, Archer Huntington, John D. Rockefeller, Gertrude Clarke Whittall, and many others soon joined Mrs. Coolidge as Library of Congress benefactors. In particular, Gertrude Clarke Whittall's donation of five Stradivari instruments and the funding for concerts at which they could be played helped establish the Library as a patron of the arts. (Her gift also was a particularly appropriate one for the Library, as Thomas Jefferson's legacy includes an informed appreciation for the fine arts, and he himself played the violin and the cello.) This new private funding through the Trust Fund also allowed the Library to establish chairs and consultantships for scholars and a consultantship for poetry, which has evolved today into the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.

Putnam was careful in defining the use of the support the Library received through the Trust Fund. Private funds were to serve a limited role; to "do for American scholarship and cultivation what is not likely to be done by other agencies" and most definitely supplement, not replace, the annual government appropriation. [14] His vision for the Library's cultural and educational role and how it could be developed and funded established a precedent for the valuable private sector support that the Library of Congress receives today.

Putnam enhanced the Library's symbolic role as a cradle of Jeffersonian democracy in 1921 when, at his behest, the nation's two most precious documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, were transferred to the Library from the State Department. In 1924 the documents went on permanent public display in a specially designed "Shrine" in the Library's Great Hall. Pres. Calvin Coolidge and many other dignitaries took part in the ceremony, but there were no speeches, only the singing of two stanzas of "America." The Library transferred both documents to the National Archives in 1952, but still holds, as one of its greatest treasurers, Jefferson's handwritten draft of the Declaration of Independence. And the spirit behind that great document pervades the Library. In his book The Epic of America, published in 1931, historian James Truslow Adams paid tribute to the Library of Congress "as a symbol of what democracy can accomplish on its own behalf...founded and built by the people, it is for the people." [15]

Thumbnail image of photo of the sixty-piece Sousa
Band during the 1920 tour, the 1901 piano version of The Invincible
Eagle march The genius of John Philip Sousa, America's beloved March King, is celebrated in this collection of items from the Music Division. Pictured are a photo of the sixty-piece Sousa Band during the 1920 tour, the 1901 piano version of The Invincible Eagle march, and a souvenir from the 1926 band tour. The piccolo, from the Dayton C. Miller Flute Collection, was made circa 1897 for Frank Wadsworth, a flutist in the Sousa Band. And the French coronet from the R.E. Sheldon Wind Instrument Collection is typical of those used in Sousa's band at the turn of the century. (Photograph by Reid Baker)

The expansion of the Library's collections and services during Putnam's forty years as Librarian naturally required additional space. Additional book stacks within the Jefferson Building were built in 1910 and 1927. In 1907, Putnam had assured Congress that when the shelving space in the Jefferson Building was gone, "storage shelving may be extended into plain, simple, inexpensive but appropriate buildings in the neighborhood." Legislation to acquire land for a new structure was approved in 1928, and the Annex Building (today the Adams Building) was authorized in 1930. Construction was delayed during the Depression years, but the classically simple and rectangular structure was completed in 1938 and opened to the public in 1939.

The Library of Congress as a democratic institution and repository of American cultural traditions was a concept that captured the imagination of Putnam's successor writer and poet Archibald MacLeish. Appointed by Pres. Franklin Roosevelt in 1939, MacLeish served as Librarian of Congress until the end of 1944, when he became assistant secretary of state. An advocate of U.S. involvement in World War II, MacLeish used the office of Librarian of Congress to speak out on behalf of democracy. He urged librarians to "become active and not passive agents of the democratic process," and criticized his fellow intellectuals for their failure to defend American culture against the threat of totalitarianism. He became the most visible Librarian of Congress in the history of the office.

Thomas Jefferson's concept of liberty and self-government inspired Librarian MacLeish who, in 1941, dedicated the South Reading Room in the Adams Building to the Library's principal founder. At MacLeish's request, artist Ezra Winter decorated the Jefferson Reading Room with four murals that drew their themes from quotations from Jefferson on the subjects of freedom, labor, the "living generation," education, and democratic government. MacLeish established a "democracy alcove" in the Main Reading Room, where readers could find "the classic texts of the American tradition," including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and other writings of American statesmen.

In 1943, the Library commemorated the bicentennial of Jefferson's birth. In opening the Library's exhibit, MacLeish called Jefferson's definition of liberty the "greatest and the most moving, as it is the most articulate." An annotated catalog of the books in Jefferson's personal library by bibliographer E. Millicent Sowerby was undertaken (it was published in five volumes, 1952-59), and the Library started microfilming its collection of Jefferson papers in the same year.

Thumbnail image of Librarian of 
Congress Archibald MacLeish, David C. Mearns and Verner W. Clapp In September 1944, Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish, center, joined Reference Department director David C. Mearns and Verner W. Clapp of the Acquisitions Department in examining Thomas Jefferson's rough draft of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration and other muniments had just been returned to the Library from safekeeping during World War II at Fort Knox.

Thanks to MacLeish's personal interest and contacts, during his librarianship the Library of Congress established new and enduring relationships with American writers and scholars. Other highlights of the fruitful MacLeish years included the development of Library-wide objectives; an administrative reorganization so thorough that it lasted for more than three decades; the creation of a rotating counsultantship in poetry; and fellowship programs for young scholars. The Librarian articulated Jefferson's rationale as it applied to foreign materials, asserting, in his "Canons of Selection" in his 1940 annual report, that the Library should acquire the "written records of those societies and peoples whose experience is of most immediate concern to the people of the United States." Indeed, World War II's most important effect on the Library was to stimulate further development of its collections about other nations.

Librarian MacLeish resigned in 1944 and, in 1945, Pres. Harry Truman named assistant librarian Luther H. Evans, a political scientist, as Librarian. Evans served until 1953. To justify his ambitious proposals in fiscal year 1947 to expand the Library's collections and services, Evans emphasized Jefferson's "doctrine of completeness and inclusiveness." The challenges of the postwar years meant, to Evans, that "no spot on the earth's surface is any longer alien to the interest of the American people." He felt that the major lesson of World War II was that "however large our collections may now be, they are pitifully and tragically small in comparison with the demands of the nation." He described the need for larger collections of research materials about foreign countries in practical, patriotic terms, noting that in the years leading up to the war "the want of early issues of the Voelkische Beobachter prevented the first auguries of Naziism" from being appreciated, while during the war, weather data on the Himalayas from the Library's collections helped the Air Force. [16]

The acquisitions, cataloging, and bibliographic services of the Library grew during the Evans years, but not as rapidly as the Librarian would have liked. He believed that the Library of Congress should actively serve all libraries, but an economy-minded postwar Congress balked at his expansionist plans. Evans's leadership and energy helped compensate for the lack of large budget increases, however. Cooperative projects in acquiring and cataloging materials were undertaken regionally and nationally. His strong personal interest in issues such as copyright and intellectual freedom strengthened the Library's involvement in each of these areas.

A new Library of Congress commitment to international library and cultural cooperation was one of Evans's major contributions. [17] The Library of Congress Mission in Europe, organized by Evans and director of acquisitions Verner W. Clapp in 1945, acquired European publications for the Library and for other American libraries. The Library soon initiated automatic book purchase agreements with foreign dealers around the world and greatly expanded its agreements for the international exchange of official publications. It organized a reference library in San Francisco in 1945 to assist the participants in the meeting that established the United Nations. In 1947, a Library of Congress Mission to Japan provided advice for the establishment of the National Diet Library. Evans also believed strongly in cultural reparation: that original source materials belong in the country of their creation. As Librarian of Congress, he initiated the return of several important manuscripts from the Library to the countries of their origin.

Evans's successor as Librarian of Congress was L. Quincy Mumford, who was director of the Cleveland Public Library in 1954 when Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower nominated him. Mumford, who in 1957 initiated the planning that led to the construction of the Madison Building, guided the Library through its most intensive period of national and international expansion. In the 1960s the Library of Congress benefited from increased federal funding for education, libraries, and research. Most dramatic was the growth of the foreign acquisitions program, an expansion based on Evans's achievements a decade earlier. In 1958 the Library was authorized by Congress to acquire books by using U.S.-owned foreign currency under the terms of the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954 (Public Law 480). The first appropriation for this purpose was made in 1961, enabling the Library to establish acquisitions centers in New Delhi and Cairo to purchase publications and distribute them to research libraries throughout the United States. This, however, was only the first step.

In 1965, Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson approved a Higher Education Act which, through Title IIC, had great significance for the Library of Congress for the ambitious purposes of acquiring, insofar as possible, all current library materials of value to scholarship published throughout the world, and providing cataloging information for these materials promptly after they had been received. This law came closer than any other legislation to making Jefferson's concept of comprehensiveness part of the Library's official mandate. The new effort was christened the National Program for Acquisitions and Cataloging (NPAC). The first NPAC office was opened in London in 1966. In the past decade the Library's overseas operations have been consolidated. Today, the Library has six overseas offices and cooperative acquisitions arrangements with booksellers and libraries around the world.

Shared acquisitions and cataloging made international bibliographic standards imperative. The crucial development took place at the Library of Congress in the mid-1960s: the creation of the Library of Congress MARC (Machine Readable Cataloging) format for communicating bibliographic data in machine-readable form. This new capability for converting, maintaining, and distributing bibliographic information soon became the standard format for sharing data about books and other research materials. The possibility of worldwide application was immediately recognized, and the MARC format structure became an official national standard in 1971 and an international standard in 1973.

The preservation and conservation of library collections has become an important concern of research libraries in the past few decades. In 1967, the Library of Congress inaugurated a pilot project to study techniques for the preservation of deteriorating or "brittle" books---volumes disintegrating because they were printed on acidic paper. Today, the Library's Preservation Office administers this nation's largest library research and conservation effort.

The Mumford administration, a period of rapid growth, was also the last time there was serious public debate about the dual legislative and national roles of the Library of Congress. The Library of Congress has played a leadership role in the American library community since 1901; however, its first responsibility, as part of the legislative branch of the American government, always has been to support the reference and research needs of the American national legislature. In spite of the impressive list of "national library functions" it performs, the Library of Congress is not the official National Library of the United States or even necessarily the center of American library and information activities.

In 1962, at the request of Sen. Claiborne Pell of the Joint Library Committee, Douglas Bryant, associate director of the Harvard University Library prepared a memorandum on "what the Library of Congress does and ought to do for the Government and the Nation generally." Bryant urged further expansion of the Library's national activities and services, proposals endorsed by many professional librarians, and suggested several organizational changes. Mumford replied to the Bryant memorandum in his 1962 annual report, strongly defending the Library's position in the legislative branch and stating his opposition to the suggestion in the report that the Library's name might be altered to reflect its national role: "The Library of Congress is a venerable institution, with a proud history, and to change its name would do unspeakable violence to tradition."

The debate continued in the professional library community. However, the fiscal retrenchments of the 1970s and a reemphasis of the Library's legislative services under the provisions of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 rendered any increased national library aspirations impractical. The new law changed the name of the Legislative Reference Service to the Congressional Research Service and expanded its functions, placing increased emphasis on policy research and analysis and on direct services to both individual members of Congress and congressional committees.

Librarian Mumford retired in 1974. In 1975, Pres. Gerald R. Ford nominated historian Daniel J. Boorstin, who had been director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of History and Technology (now American History), to be the twelfth Librarian of Congress. Boorstin was confirmed by the Senate and took the oath of office on November 12, 1975, in a ceremony in the Library's Great Hall.

Boorstin immediately faced two major challenges: the need to review the Library's organization and functions and, pending the forthcoming expansion into the James Madison Memorial Building, the lack of space for both collections and staff. In 1976, he created a Task Force on Goals, Organization, and Planning, a staff group which conducted with help from outside advisers a one-year review of the Library and its role. Many of the task force's recommendations were incorporated into a subsequent reorganization. [18] The move into the Madison Building, which began in 1980 and was completed in 1982, relieved administrative as well as physical pressures, and enabled Librarian Boorstin to focus on what he deemed most important: the strengthening of the Library's ties to Congress, and the development of new relationships between the Library and scholars, authors, publishers, cultural leaders, and the business community.

The Library of Congress grew steadily during Boorstin's administration, with its annual appropriation increasing from $116 million in 1975 to more than $250 million in 1987, even though the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget restrictions slowed growth severely in 1985 and 1986. Like MacLeish, Boorstin relied heavily on his professional staff in technical areas such as cataloging, automation, and library preservation. But he took a keen personal interest in collection development; in copyright; in book and reading promotion; in the symbolic role of the Library of Congress in American life; and in the Library as "the world's greatest Multi-Media Encyclopedia." Boorstin's style and accomplishments increased the visibility of the Library to the point where in January 1987 a New York Times reporter, discussing Boorstin's decision to retire as Librarian, called the post of Librarian of Congress "perhaps the leading intellectual public position in the nation."

Boorstin's successor, historian James H. Billington, was nominated by Pres. Ronald Reagan and took the oath of office as the thirteenth Librarian of Congress on September 14, 1987. Billington immediately took personal charge of the Library, instituting his own one-year review through a Management and Planning (MAP) Committee, a process that included regional forums in nine cities. The result was a major administrative reorganization based on goals identified through the MAP study.[19] Convinced that the Library of Congress needed to share its resources throughout the nation more widely, he instituted several projects to test new technologies that might extend direct access by libraries and schools to the Library's collections and data bases. The experimental American Memory project, for example, provides electronic copies of selected documents of American history and culture to schools and libraries. A two-year pilot project providing on-line access to the Library to the fifty state library agencies began in 1991.

Envisioning a new educational role for the Library, Billington began strengthening the Library's cultural programming and established its first Educational Office. Recognition of the crucial importance of private funds in building and sustaining national outreach projects led to the creation of a Development Office in 1988. The establishment in 1990 of the James Madison Council, a private sector support body consisting mostly of business executives and entrepreneurs, brought new support. In fiscal 1991, Billington obtained a 12 percent budget increase for the Library to help make its collections more accessible. New initiatives also provided Library of Congress guidance to parliamentary libraries in the newly emerging democracies of Eastern Europe.

In his budget presentation to Congress for fiscal year 1993, Billington emphasized that the Library of Congress is "becoming an even more important catalyst for the educational, competitive, and creative needs of our nation." The complexities of today's information age, particularly when compared to the relatively simple demands faced by the Library in Thomas Jefferson's time, were most apparent in the Librarian's discussion of new electronic technology. Yet the new technology, "properly organized and supported" will, according to Billington, be applied to a Jeffersonian purpose, enabling the Library to "increase the knowledge available to Americans in their local communities---in schools, colleges, libraries, and private sector research enterprises." Thus, "even those Americans far from great universities and the most affluent schools and libraries can still have access to the best of the nation's heritage and the latest in up-to-date information." [20]

In his Sixth Annual Message as president, Thomas Jefferson proposed the creation of a national university, because "a public institution alone can supply those sciences which, though rarely called for, are yet necessary to complete the circle, all the parts of which contribute to the improvement of the country." [21] Billington's efforts to exploit new electronic technologies and educational partnerships, governmental and private, present the intriguing possibility of the Library of Congress, nearly two centuries after Jefferson's proposal, becoming the core of a new "Electronic National University."

Librarian Billington's determination to extend the reach and influence of the Library of Congress is very much in the ambitious tradition of his predecessors. Alone among the world's great libraries, the Library of Congress still attempts to be a universal library, collecting printed materials in almost all media. As it approaches its bicentennial in the year 2000, it still is guided by Thomas Jefferson's beliefs that democracy depends on knowledge and that all topics are important to the library of the American national legislative---and therefore to the American people.


1. S.R. Ranganathan, "The Library of Congress Among National Libraries," ALA Bulletin 44 (October 1950): 356. Return to text

2. For a historical summary of the functions of the Library of Congress, see John Y. Cole, "For Congress & the Nation: The Dual Nature of the Library of Congress," Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 32 (April 1975): 119-38. Unless otherwise stated, dates and statistics are from John Y. Cole, For Congress and the Nation: A Chronological History of the Library of Congress (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1979). Return to text

3. Jefferson to Samuel H. Smith, September 21, 1814, Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Return to text

4. Ainsworth Rand Spofford, "The Government Library at Washington," International Review 5 (November 1878): 769. Return to text

5. "The Library of Congress. The Capitol and its Grounds." Speech of the Hon. Justin S. Morrill of Vermont in the Senate of the United States, March 31,1879 (Washington, 1879). Return to text

6. "The Library of Congress." A Speech Delivered by the Hon. D. W. Voorhees of Indiana in the Senate of the United States, May 5, 1880 (Washington, 1880). Return to text

7. U.S. Congress, Joint Committee on the Library, Condition of the Library of Congress, March 3, 1897, 54th Cong., 2d sess., S. Rept. 1573, p. 142. Return to text

8. Herbert Putnam, "The Library of Congress as the National Library," Library Journal 30 (September 1905): C30. Return to text

9. John Y. Cole, "The Library of Congress and American Scholarship, 1865-1939," in Libraries and Scholarly Communication in the United States: The Historical Dimension, ed. Phyllis Dain and John Y. Cole (N.Y.: Greenwood Press, 1990), pp. 45-61. Return to text

10. Herbert Putnam, "The Relation of the National Library to Historical Research in the United States," in American Association Annual Report for 1901 (Washington, D.C., 1902), p. 120. Return to text

11. U.S. Congress, Congressional Record 72 (June 9, 1930): 10347; U.S. Senate, Committee on the Library, Purchase of Vollbehr Collection of Incunabula, 71st Congress, 2d sess., 1930-31, S. Rept. 965, p. 6. Return to text

12. U.S. Senate, Committee on the Library, Legislative Drafting Bureau and Reference Division, 62d Cong., 3d sess., 1913, S. Rept. 1271, p. 37. Return to text

13.Ibid., p. 29. Return to text

14. U.S. Library of Congress, Report of the Librarian of Congress for the Fiscal Year ending June 30, 1925. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1925) p. 5.Return to text

15. James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (N.Y.: Garden City Books, 1931), p. 35. Return to text

16. Luther H. Evans. "Library of Congress Records a New Era of World Progress." The Sunday Star (Washington, D.C.), December 2, 1945. Return to text

17. John Y. Cole, "The International Role of the Library of Congress. A Brief History," Alexandria 1 (December 1989): 43-51. Return to text

18. John Y. Cole, ed. The Library of Congress in Perspective: A Volume Based on the Reports of the 1976 Librarian's Task Force and Advisory Groups (N.Y., R. R. Bowker Company, 1978), pp. 85-147.Return to text

19. U.S. Library of Congress, "The Report of the Management and Planning Team to the Librarian of Congress," November 18, 1988. 259 p. (mimeographed).Return to text

20. James H. Billington, Statement Before the Subcommittee on Legislative Appropriations, Committee on Appropriations, U.S. House of Representatives, Fiscal 1993 Budget Request. Jan. 29, 1992.Return to text

21. Thomas Jefferson, Sixth Annual Message of the President of the United States, Dec. 2, 1806, in Thomas Jefferson, Writings (N.Y.: The Library of America, 1984), pp. 529-530. Return to text

Contents - Preface - Library of Congress - Collections
Buildings - Librarians - Further Reading - Concordance

Go to:

Library of Congress
Contact Us ( March 30, 2006 )