Monday, April 24, 2006

The Library of Congress - April 24, 1800

Yay! I get a really good one today. As indicated by my nerdy ambition to be a librarian (Yes, I even like cats!) anything to do with books thrills me to no end. So, with that in mind...

On April 24, 1800 President John Adams (oh, I do love that man!) signed a bill appropriating a whopping $5000 to purchase reference books that Congress might need. According to, that would be almost $75,000 in today's currency. Anyway, books first arrived from London in 1801 and were stored in the Capitol Building. One year later there were 964 volumes and nine maps.

The library was burned by the British in August 1814 when they set fire to the Capitol Building and sacked the small library. President Thomas Jefferson immediately offered his own personal library. It was purchased by Congress for $23,950 for 6,487 volumes (nearly $292,500 today). At the same time Congress hired a trained, professional librarian, George Watterston, to be the caretaker of the fledgling (accidental) national library. Jefferson's 50 years of collecting books had netted the Library volumes on philosophy, science, literature and books in foreign languages. He was concerned at first that his offer would be rejected because the broad scope of subjects would be considered inappropriate for a Congressional library. Thankfully, his doubts were proven wrong.

"The Jeffersonian concept of universality, the belief that all subjects are important to the library of the American legislature, is the philosophy and rationale behind the comprehensive collecting policies of today's Library of Congress." - from the history of the Library of Congress page

In 1851 a second fire gutted about two-thirds of the library, which was at 55,000 volumes. Congress quickly appropriated money to rebuild the collection, especially the Jefferson collection.

Librarian Ainsworth Rand Spofford (I double-checked the spelling. What a mouthful!) was responsible for the Copyright Law of 1870, requiring all applicants to send two copies to the Library of Congress. This quickly led to a shortage of space in the Capitol Building and the need for the construction of a new building. Begun in 1886, it opened for business on November 1, 1897.

Today the Library of Congress holds more than 130 million items, including books, manuscripts, films, sound recordings, maps and legal documents - including resources accessible online. The various collections are now housed in three buildings. It is one of the largest libraries in the world and a true national treasure.

The Library of Congress
The History Channel

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