Saturday, April 24, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Library of Congress Was Established

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On this day in 1800 the Library of Congress was established, almost as an afterthought, as part of an act of Congress - signed by President John Adams - transferring the federal capital from Philadelphia to Washington; the establishment of the library came with a $5000 appropriation '...for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress ... and for fitting up a suitable apartment for containing them...'. The original collection contained 740 books and thirty maps; it was housed in a room of the US Capitol, and consisted mainly of law books.

Adams' successor Thomas Jefferson was the first to suggest a dedicated building to house the collection, in 1802. His legislation provided for a Librarian of Congress and a Joint Committee on the Library to oversee its acquisitions. By August 1814 the collection had grown to contain 3,000 volumes, all of which perished when the British invaded Washington, DC, and burned the Capitol, the White House, and many other important buildings. Within a month perennially cash-strapped former president Jefferson offered Congress the bulk of his collection as a replacement; in all, $23,950 was paid for his 6,487 volume library.

For many years there was an ongoing disagreement about what role the Library of Congress ought to perform; some felt it should contain only those volumes Congress might need to do its job, while others felt it should be the nation's library, containing everything published in the country, periodicals as well as books. Charles Coffin Jewett, librarian of the Smithsonian Institution, felt that his organization should be the nation's library - a move blocked by the Smithsonian's Secretary Joseph Henry; however, poor leadership on the part of successive Librarians of Congress meant that for half a century (during which time the country grew by leaps and bounds) the country's national library languished for want of badly needed guidance.

On Christmas Eve 1851 another fire devastated the Library of Congress, this time destroying 35,000 books, or about two-thirds of the 55,000 volume collection. Following the fire John Silva Meehan was appointed librarian, and he did little to replace that portion of the collection which had perished. A subsequent librarian, John G. Stephenson, was equally ineffectual. It took the appointment of Ainsworth Rand Spofford to the post, as much as the 28 years he spent in it, to finally give the Library of Congress the respect it deserved. Not only did the collection balloon under his supervision, but the lavish Thomas Jefferson Building was built to house it.

Currently the Library of Congress holds 130 million items (29 million of them books) on 530 miles (850 km) of shelves*; as the nation's copyright repository it is entitled to at least one copy of every item published in the United States. To this end, 10,000 items are added to the collection - drawn from 22,000 items submitted - each and every day. Much of the collection is available online at the American Memory archive.

*By contrast, the British Library - established circa 1763 - houses 150 million items with 25 million books on 388 miles (625 km) of shelves.

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