Library of Congress - History and Facts | History Hit

Library of Congress

Amy Irvine

13 Jul 2023
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Carol M. Highsmith Archive collection at the Library of Congress / Public Domain

About Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, with over 164 million items on more than 500 miles of bookshelves, including around 37 million books, 69 million manuscripts, and an extensive collection of music, video and audio recordings, films, photographs, newspapers and maps in its collections. The Library is the main research facility for the US Congress and the home of the US Copyright Office.

Housed across three buildings on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (the Thomas Jefferson Building, the James Madison Memorial Building and the John Adams Building) as well as the Packard Campus in Culpepper, Virginia, the Library also serves as a museum, with numerous exhibits inside the Thomas Jefferson Building.

History of the Library of Congress

A bill signed by President John Adams transferring the seat of government from Philadelphia to the new capital of Washington mentioned the creation of a reference library for use by Congress, with a fund of $5,000 for books. This became The Library of Congress – America’s oldest federal cultural institution – founded on 24 April 1800.

On 24 August 1814, British troops burned the Capitol building (housing the original Library), destroying the Library’s core 3,000 volume collection. Retired President Thomas Jefferson, who had amassed a vast collection of books over his lifetime, offered his personal collection as a replacement. Congress paid $23,950 for the 6,487 books, forming the foundation of the Library today.

Although the Library enabled the public to access popular literature, its primary purpose was to serve Congress. This changed after the Civil War when America’s economy expanded and the federal government and city of Washington grew rapidly. Taking advantage of America’s emerging cultural nationalism, Ainsworth Spofford (Librarian of Congress 1864-1897) persuaded Congress to view its Library as a national institution, creating a single, comprehensive collection of American publications for use by both Congress and the public.

Since then, the Library has undergone expansions and modernisations, and today serves as a symbol of intellectual pursuit, preserving and granting access to a wealth of information and cultural heritage for researchers, scholars, and the public.

Library of Congress today

The Library of Congress is now the largest library in the world, housing a staggering 164 million items. Its vast collection includes 37 million books, along with photographs, recordings, maps, sheet music and manuscripts. The Library receives approximately 15,000 items daily and adds more than 10,000 items to its collections, representing 470 different languages.

Among its most precious items are the first known book printed in North America, The Bay Psalm Book (1640) and the 1507 world map by Martin Waldseemüller, known as America’s Birth Certificate, the first document on which the name America appears.

In particular, the Thomas Jefferson Building has plenty to offer visitors. Aside from its stunning Gilded Age architecture, it hosts free walking tours that showcase its murals, statues, mosaics and domed ceiling. The building contains a recreation of Thomas Jefferson’s Library and also hosts numerous ad-hoc and ongoing exhibitions including the Gershwins, Native American culture, the Swann Gallery’s political cartoons and caricatures, and the Herblock Gallery’s view of political cartoonist Herbert L. Block’s work. Many other events and festivals take place each year.

Getting to the Library of Congress

All the Library of Congress’ buildings are free to enter. Whilst the James Madison Memorial Building and the John Adams Building are primarily used for research, the Thomas Jefferson Building and its exhibitions are usually open from Monday-Saturday, 8:30am-5pm except for public holidays. The closest Metro stop is Capitol South station on the Orange, Blue and Silver lines. Once outside the main exit, walk two blocks north on First Street SE.

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