Out of the Ashes

(The following is an article written by Guy Lamolinara, communications officer for the Center for the Book, featured in the September-October 2012 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine. Aug. 24 was the 200th anniversary of the burning of the Capitol building and the Library.)

The story of the phoenix that rises triumphantly from its own ashes to live life anew is the story of how the Library of Congress survived its destruction during the War of 1812 to become the nation’s–and the world’s–pre-eminent source of knowledge and information.

An 1814 drawing shows the U.S. Capitol after its burning by the British. Print | George Munger, Prints and Photographs Division

An 1814 drawing shows the U.S. Capitol after its burning by the British. Print | George Munger, Prints and Photographs Division

On Aug. 24, 1814, the British occupied Washington, D.C., and burned the Capitol building. Inside, the congressional library went up in flames.

Two years before the conflagration, on June 18, 1812, President James Madison proclaimed that the Congress of the United States had declared war on the United Kingdom for “the wrongs which have forced on them the last resort of injured nations.”

When the Library of Congress burned, it was less than two decades old. In 1800, the year of the Library’s founding, as the new nation prepared to move its capital from Philadelphia to Washington, President John Adams signed into law a bill that appropriated $5,000 to purchase “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress.” The money was used to acquire 740 books and three maps, ordered, ironically, from London. On the eve of the British attack on U.S. soil, Congress’s library had more than quadrupled to just over 3,000 books, maps, charts and plans, according to an 1812 catalog. Little would survive the conflagration.

From his home in Monticello, Va., retired President Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend and political ally Samuel H. Smith, “I learn from the newspapers that the vandalism of our enemy has triumphed at Washington over science as well as the arts, by the destruction of the public library with the noble edifice in which it was deposited.”

Jefferson subsequently offered to sell his personal library–the largest and finest in the country–to Congress to “recommence” its library. After some political wrangling and arguments in Congress over why its members would need such a wide-ranging library as Jefferson’s–much of it in foreign languages–the United States purchased the 6,487 volumes for $23,950 in 1815.

To the doubters Jefferson replied, “There is, in fact, no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”The ideal of a knowledge-based democracy was a cornerstone of the new republic and has remained so for more than two centuries. The far-ranging nature of the collections Jefferson assembled and his belief in the importance of a “universal” collection have ever since guided the Library’s collecting policies and are the key to the institution’s stature as a national–and world– library.

With the purchase of Jefferson’s books–collected over a period of 50 years–the Library effectively more than doubled in size. The new Library of Congress now contained volumes devoted to the arts and sciences as well as those that pertained to lawmaking.

On Dec, 31, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ainsworth Rand Spofford to the post of Librarian of Congress. Located in the west front of the U.S. Capitol, the Library housed more than 82,000 volumes.

Spofford obtained congressional support for several legislative acts between 1865 and 1870 that ensured the growth of the collections and made the Library of Congress the largest library in the nation. The most important new measure was the copyright law of 1870, which centralized all U.S. copyright registration and deposit activities at the Library. The new law brought books, pamphlets, maps, prints, photographs and music into the institution without cost, thus assuring the future growth of the Americana collections and providing the Library with an essential and unique national function.

Published in Harper's Weekly on Feb. 27, 1897, this print shows the congressional library in its overcrowded quarters in the U.S. Capitol. Librarian of Congress Ainsworth R. Spofford appears at far right. Print | W. Bengough, Prints and Photographs Division

Published in Harper’s Weekly on Feb. 27, 1897, this print shows the congressional library in its overcrowded quarters in the U.S. Capitol. Librarian of Congress Ainsworth R. Spofford appears at far right. Print | W. Bengough, Prints and Photographs Division

In 1874, for the first time, the copyright law brought in more books than were obtained through purchase. The rapid growth of the collection necessitated a new home for the congressional library. The new structure, now called the Thomas Jefferson Building, was authorized by Congress in 1886 and completed more than a decade later. When it opened across the east plaza from the Capitol on Nov. 1, 1897, Librarian Spofford called it “the book palace of the American people.”

The Library of Congress began its expansion into a national and international institution under the leadership of Herbert Putnam, who served as Librarian of Congress from 1899 until 1939. The Library’s annex–later known as the John Adams Building–opened in 1939. The Library’s third Capitol Hill structure, the James Madison Memorial Building, opened to the public in 1980.

By 1992, the Library was the largest in the world and that year celebrated the acquisition of its 100 millionth item. For its burgeoning physical collections, the Library opened a high-density storage facility at Fort Meade, Md., in 2002. And in 2007, the Library opened a state- of-the-art audiovisual conservation facility at its new Packard Campus in Culpeper, Va.

On the eve of the 21st century, the institution was acquiring materials in all media, including digital. In 1994, the Library began to offer its collections online as part of its mission to make its materials as widely available as possible. Digitization efforts focused on rare and unique items such as the Gettysburg Address, the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, the papers of Frederick Douglass, early maps and the first films of Thomas Edison. Since then, the Library has continued to add materials to its vast website, which now offers more than 31.4 million items. The World Digital Library website, which launched in 2008, offers content from 151 partner institutions in 75 countries, with metadata and expert commentary provided in seven languages.

By embracing technology and exploiting its potential, the Library has transformed itself into an essential–and readily accessible–resource for the nation as well as the world. And the institution has worked to extend its reach, not only making its collections more accessible on its own site, but also appearing on other content sites such as Flickr, YouTube and iTunes.

The Library of Congress– risen from the war’s ashes–continues to inform the national legislature and the world with its unparalleled collections.

John Y. Cole, Center for the Book Director and Library of Congress historian, also contributed to this article. 

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