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213 Is a Lot of Candles: Happy Birthday Library of Congress

This post is authored by Dr. John Y. Cole, Director of the Center for the Book in the Library of CongressDonna previously blogged about the birthday of the Law Library of Congress, which is on July 14, 1832.

Today is the 213th birthday of the Library of Congress.  I’ve been hooked on the institution’s history for 40 of those 213 years, publishing my first article in the Library’s Quarterly Journal (“Of Copyright, Men & a National Library“) in 1971.  At the time I was finishing my Ph.D. dissertation about the remarkable Ainsworth Rand Spofford, who served as Librarian of Congress from 1864-1897.

So what have I really learned about the Library of Congress history during all these years–in addition, of course, to wonderful stories about our institution’s unusual nature and complexity, astounding collections, and often quirky personalities?  Well, from one perspective, perhaps not too much; I’m still pondering the basic question that made me so curious about the Library of Congress in the first place: what ARE the characteristics–the unique features–that set the Library of Congress apart from other great American cultural institutions?  And of course, how and why did these characteristics develop?

ON THE OTHER HAND, I do have a few preliminary thoughts to share on this anniversary occasion and hope that others can add their ideas.

Main Reading Room [between 1890 and 1930], courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Main Reading Room [between 1890 and 1930], courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

First, the Library of Congress is unique because it is a legislative branch agency that also has prescribed and important executive, national, and international responsibilities.

This all started because Congress established the Library of Congress early (1800) in our nation’s history and almost immediately (1802) gave the President the sole power to appoint the Librarian of Congress–without Congressional confirmation.  (This didn’t happen until 1897, when the Library moved out of the U.S. Capitol into its own separate building.)   In 1814, after the British destroyed the Capitol and the nascent Library of Congress, former President Thomas Jefferson changed the nature of the entire  ball game through the 1815 sale of his comprehensive (“there is no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer” ) personal library to the government to “re-commence” the Library of Congress.   Moreover, Jefferson suggested that this new collection, which covered (by implication) all subjects, formats, and languages, could and should be used by the whole country, noting that it would be an excellent “substratum for a national library.”

And indeed, in the decades that followed, the Library was opened to executive department agencies, the Supreme Court, and the general public.  Using Jeffersonian rhetoric and references, between 1865 and 1897  Librarian of Congress Spofford convinced Congress, primarily through the centralization of copyright (1870) and the construction of the Library of Congress building (1887-1897) that its library was also the nation’s library.  Spofford’s successors as Librarian of Congress, John Russell Young (1897-99) and especially Herbert Putnam (1899-1939), sealed the deal, adding the international and the service to libraries dimensions.

Details about this remarkable history (and story) are outlined in two of my early books about the Library of Congress:  For Congress and the Nation: A Chronological History of the Library of Congress Through 1975 (1979) and Jefferson’s Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of  Congress (1993).

Secondly, the Library of Congress is unique because it has an excellent reputation as a nonpartisan governmental institution that also is steadfastly “noncommercial.”

In 1897, when Congress gave itself the power to confirm the President’s nomination of a Librarian of Congress, it created a new political “balance” that also strengthened the office and the role of the Librarian of Congress.  The Library also received its own separate personnel system.  With the establishment of the separate Legislative Reference Service (based on the LaFollette/Wisconsin model) in 1914, the Library self-consciously began serving all political parties in Congress in a non-partisan, even-handed manner.  Regarding the use of private donations, the Library has carefully sought prior Congressional approval for its major initiatives, the creation of the Library of Congress Trust Fund Board (1925), and the establishment of the Development Office (1987) and the James Madison Council (1990).

Next, the Library of Congress is unique because of the well-known devotion to public service–frequently paralleled by deep specialization–of its staff members.

The Library’s functions and services depend on its collections, and as those collections have expanded in scope and size, so have the specialties of the staffs that organize, preserve, and service those collections.  The most current version of  “Fascinating Facts” from the Library’s Communications Office notes that the Library of Congress not only is the largest library in the world (approximately 162 million items) but that it also holds the world’s most comprehensive collections of : American music;  international posters; cartographic materials; U.S. telephone and city directories; comic books;  films, television programs, radio broadcasts, and sound recordings; and the largest collection of any one kind of musical instrument (the flute).  And this is only the tip of the iceberg regarding Library of Congress staff specialties, which also includes devoted experts in law, area studies, copyright, political science, history, science, computers, preservation and conservations, and many other fields.

Finally, for me the Library of Congress is especially interesting because, outside of Congress and, to a lesser degree outside of librarians and libraries, we remain a “surprise” on the national scene to many people, e.g., potential users and donors.  They simply are unaware of the range and depth of our collections and services to government, scholarship, and the public.  And often even that the Library of Congress is open to the public.

This is a multi-faceted problem that many of us are working on in different ways.  It has historical roots, however. During three brief periods in our history (soon after the Jefferson Building opened, the post- World War II years, and the early 1960s), Congress at least considered expanding the name  “Library of  Congress” in a way that would recognize the institution’s established our national role.  But nothing has ever transpired on the legislative front.  Yet historically, through its steadily increasing support of the Library’s annual appropriation, Congress has been (as Dr. James H. Billington, our current Librarian of Congress, has frequently pointed out) very generous; in fact, it is the “greatest” of our supporters.  In recent decades, especially under Dr. Billington, the Library has focused on developing new educational and public outreach programs aimed at reaching specific new audiences, particularly younger people, both online and in person.

I think Jefferson would be pleased.

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