Opening Day … For the Library

Until 1897, the Library of Congress was housed in the U.S. Capitol Building 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.

Builders at work above the second level of the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building during its construction. Dec. 3, 1891. Prints and Photographs Division.

Builders at work above the second level of the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building during its construction. Dec. 3, 1891. Prints and Photographs Division.

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.

The building itself was an architectural wonder, a “gorgeous and palatial monument to its [America] national sympathy and appreciation of literature, science and art,” according to a guidebook published at the time. News of the opening of the new Library made the pages of many newspapers. A search through the newspapers in Chronicling America uncovered many headlines about the new building.

Library of Congress's Thomas Jefferson Building taken from the Dome of the U.S. Capitol. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006. Prints and Photographs Division.

Library of Congress’s Thomas Jefferson Building taken from the Dome of the U.S. Capitol. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006. Prints and Photographs Division.

“The Library of Congress, lately completed, at Washington, D.C., is the most imposing and beautiful, architecturally considered, of any United States Department building, or any building of like character in the world. Beside it the Louvre of Paris, depository of the world’s treasures of painting and sculpture, takes a second place.” The National Tribune, July 29, 1897 

According to the Nov. 2 issue of The Times, it was raining on the day the Library opened, and about 1,200 visitors came. “There is only one restriction on the visitor. As he enters he sees a sign, which, if it were alive, would have a forefinger on its lips. As it is dead, cold type, it merely says ‘Keep quiet,’ a pleasing variation of the bucolic and eternal ‘Keep off the grass.’ In that sole respect it is a melancholy place. … You go in and you want to read.”

Restoration specialist at work on art at the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006. Prints and Photographs Division.

Restoration specialist at work on art at the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006. Prints and Photographs Division.

An article from the Evening Star discussed in detail the “diversity of literary tastes” that frequented the Library. From those “whose mental food is entirely of the fiction sort” to the “large number of men and women in Washington who aspire to become writers” to “a fiery and nervous man who … will unhorse the whole civil service reform idea,” “the men and women at the reading tables are diverse enough in appearance, character and in the nature of the library studies and investigations.”

A month or so after the new Library building opened, a bill was introduced in Congress to change the name of the Library to the “national library.” According to a Dec. 16 article in the Saint Paul Globe, “The present theory of the institution is that it is an adjunct of congress, for the convenience and comfort of the members, much as are the barber shops, etc. But public taxation pays the bills; the copyright regulation supplies the American books, and many people have come to regard the institution as too great and far too important in its magnificent new quarters to be an information bureau for congress and of but incidental service to the great student public throughout the country.”

The Library would later add two other buildings to its campus: the John Adams Building in 1939 and the James Madison Memorial Building in 1981. In 1986, work began on a massive renovation of the Thomas Jefferson Building as it approached its one 100th birthday in 1997.

One Comment

  1. Dipendu Chowdhury
    November 3, 2015 at 4:53 am

    The building itself was an architectural wonder, a “gorgeous and palatial monument to its [America] national sympathy and appreciation of literature, science and art,” I am overcome with emotion which after honorary visit of the Library congress Blog. We civilian as classic or non classic, intellectual or illiterate obviously romantic in written and in born. So, Library all time guided us through traditional art or modern art. This Library of Congress is carrying an American cultural dignity.

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