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The World's Largest Inbox

Clutter awareness week is March 19-25. And it’s a call to arms to get organized. On an average work day, the Library of Congress receives approximately 22,000 items and adds approximately 10,000 of these to its collections. It’s no wonder, then, that the Library has often been described as the world’s largest inbox. Since its founding in 1800, that association has continually rung true.

Photographs show interior view of hall with piles of copyright deposit materials on the floor in the Thomas Jefferson Building Early 20th-century copyright applications for pictorial works

Until 1897, the Library originally was housed in the Capitol itself. Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1864–97) was the first to propose that the Library be moved to a dedicated building. He also was instrumental in establishing the copyright law of 1870, which placed the Copyright Office in the Library and required anyone seeking a copyright to provide two copies of the work to the institution. Largely as a result of Spofford’s vision, the Library’s burgeoning collection outgrew its space in the Capitol Building. The large Library room filled very quickly and overflow was moved to the Capitol attics and along the basement corridors. By mid-decade, Spofford was putting volumes along the walls of committee rooms, down the first- and second- floor corridors and against the public staircases.

On Nov. 1, 1897, at 9 a.m., the new Library building (now known as the Thomas Jefferson Building) officially opened to the public—25 years after Spofford had begun his entreaty. Several days later, the transfer of Library materials—some 800 tons—into the new building was completed. While the items awaited sorting, counting and classification, much was scattered about, lining hallways and covering floors.

Today, the Library makes available to Congress and the American public more than 138 million items on approximately 650 miles of bookshelves. The collections include 32 million books and other printed materials, 2.9 million recordings, 12.5 million photographs, 5.3 million maps, 5.5 millions pieces of sheet music and 61 million manuscripts.

Further reading on the Library’s metamorphoses can be found by reading the May 1997 issue of the Library of Congress Information Bulletin. The article was written in celebration of the Jefferson Building reopening after 12 years of renovation. The Information Bulletin reports on the policies, programs and events of the Library to members of Congress; to public, academic and research institutions; to learned societies and allied organizations; and to the more than 1,000 depository libraries in the United States. Archived issues as far back as 1993 are available online.

You can take a virtual tour of the Jefferson building. For more information on the history of the Library of Congress and its buildings, see “Jefferson's Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress” and “On These Walls: Inscriptions and Quotations in the Buildings of the Library of Congress.”

The mission of the United States Copyright Office is “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries” (U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8). The Copyright Office also advises Congress on intellectual property matters and copyright legislation, as well as administers the Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panels, which meet for limited times for the purpose of adjusting rates and distributing royalties.

A. Copyright deposits in basement before classifying. 1898. Prints and Photographs Division. SUMMARY: Photographs show interior view of hall with piles of copyright deposit materials on the floor in the Thomas Jefferson Building. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-USZ62-38245 (b&w film copy neg.); Call No.: U.S. GEOG FILE - Washington, D.C.--Library of Congress--Jefferson Building--Interior--Offices--Copyright Office [item] [P&P]

B. Early 20th-century copyright applications for pictorial works. 2005. Photo by Michaela McNichol. Reproduction Information: Not available for reproduction.