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The Library of Congress and its Librarians

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I expect almost everyone who works at the Library of Congress can tell you the year in which the Library was established – if not the exact date.  The Library is the oldest cultural institution in the United States.  Its establishment dates back to April 24, 1800 when President John Adams signed a law that moved the seat of government from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C.   This law was titled “An Act to make further provision for the removal and accommodation of the Government of the United States” (ch.37, 2 Stat. 55 (1800)).  The law covers a lot of ground in five sections.   The executive branch is directed to remove to Washington; money is appropriated for furniture for the White House and the Capitol; and footways are to be made for “the greater facility of communication between the various departments and offices of the government.”  Section five appropriates money “for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress, at the said city of Washington, and for fitting up a suitable apartment for containing them … “  The Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House were charged with purchasing these books using a catalogue which would be supplied to them by a joint committee which was to be appointed for that purpose.

Then on January 26, 1802, Congress passed a law which directed that books which had been purchased under the 1800 law, along with books or libraries kept separately in each house, should be placed together in the Capitol in a room previously occupied by the House of Representatives.  This law further directed: “That a librarian to be appointed by the President of the United States solely, shall take charge of the said library.”  The law also established lending rules for the Library, “That no map shall be permitted to be taken out of said library by any person; nor any book, except by the President or Vice President of the United States, and members of the Senate and House of Representatives, for the time being.”  Further regulations for the Library were to be enacted by the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House.  This law also established the Joint Committee on the Library, the oldest joint committee of the U.S. Congress.

The first Librarian of Congress was John James Beckley, appointed by President Thomas Jefferson, January 29, 1802.  He served simultaneously as the Librarian and Clerk of the House as did his successor, Patrick Magruder.  Mr. Magruder had the misfortune to be the Librarian when the British burned the Capitol on August 14, 1814 at which time the Library’s collection was either destroyed or disappeared.  After Mr. Magruder, four other Librarians of Congress were solely appointed by the president as directed by the 1802 law.  The last, Ainsworth Rand Spofford was appointed as Librarian on December 31, 1864 by President Lincoln.

At that time the Library was housed on the west front of the Capitol and owned 82,000 volumes.  Spofford helped increase the Library’s collection, most significantly with the passage of the 1870 “Act to revise, consolidate and amend the Statutes relating to Patents and Copyrights” (ch. 230, 16 Stat. 198).  This law directed that all things relating to copyright should be under the control of the Librarian of Congress as well as requiring authors to deposit two copies of their publications with the Library.  This was both a good and bad thing for the Library.  Its collections increased by 20,000 volumes in 1871 but as the Library was still housed in the Capitol building, space for the collections was running short!  As early as June 1876, the Joint Committee on the Library was reporting that the Library needed additional space as books were stacked on the Library’s floors (John Cole. For Congress and the Nation: A Chronological History of the Library of Congress. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1979, p.39).  But not until 10 years later did Congress pass a law (ch. 50, 24 Stat.12) for the construction of a “fire-proof” building for the Library of Congress.  The construction for the Thomas Jefferson Building would be not completed until February 1897.  However in the year before the completion, 1896, the Joint Committee on the Library held a series of hearings about the Library and its future organization as it prepared to move out of the Capitol building (Cole, p. 50).

The various proposals for the Library’s reorganization and structure were ultimately embodied in “An Act making appropriations for the legislative, executive and judicial expenses of the Government for the fiscal year ending June thirtieth, eighteen hundred and ninety-eight, and for other purposes” (ch. 265, 29 Stat. 538).  Among other changes, this law required that the “Librarian of Congress, to be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate … “  Since fiscal years ran from July 1 to June 30th at that time, this law became effective on July 1, 1897.  On the same day, John Russell Young was confirmed by the Senate to be the seventh Librarian of Congress.  Sadly, he died two years after being confirmed.  He was succeeded by Herbert Putnam who served in the position for 40 years.  An additional five Librarians served between 1939 and 2015, including my personal favorite Archibald MacLeish who among his other accomplishments, agreed to house the Magna Carta at the Library during World War II.  The thirteenth Librarian of Congress was Dr. James Billington, a Russian scholar and former director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars who served from 1987 to 2015.

On September 14, 2016, Dr. Carla Hayden was sworn in as the 14th Librarian of Congress.  Following the procedure laid down in the 1897 law, she was nominated by President Obama on February 24, 2016 and confirmed by the Senate on July 13, 2016.  You can find information about her nomination on  And long live the Library of Congress!

[Students in the Reading Room of the Library of Congress with the Librarian of Congress, Herbert Putnam, watching] 1899? / Frances Benjamin Johnston. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,
[Students in the Reading Room of the Library of Congress with the Librarian of Congress, Herbert Putnam, watching] 1899? / Frances Benjamin Johnston. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington D.C.,
Carla Hayden / Photograph by Shawn Miller
Chief Justice John Roberts swears in Carla Hayden with her mother, Colleen, holding the Lincoln bible and Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan / Photograph by Shawn Miller

Comments (3)

  1. This photo makes all women, and especially black women so proud. Imagine being sworn in with your hand on the Lincoln Bible!!! God Bless….

  2. Especially enjoyed hearing how the love letters
    were preserved – Alexander Hamilton; and how
    the pockets of President Abraham Lincoln were preserved!

  3. In addition to her firsts is the fact that she is the first professional, degreed, librarian.

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