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Growing a Library

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(The following is an article from the September-October 2012 issue of the Library’s new magazine, LCM, discussing how the Library acquires its collections.)

By Audrey Fischer

Beginning with a purchase of 740 books by Congress in 1800, the Library of Congress collection has grown to nearly 152 million items. But purchase is just one acquisition method that the nation’s library uses to build its unparalleled collection in all formats, on myriad subjects, from all over the world.

On April 24, 1800, President John Adams approved an act of Congress establishing the Library of Congress. The legislation also appropriated $5,000 “for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress.”

The bulk of the Library’s nascent collection of 740 volumes was purchased from London booksellers Cadell & Davies in June 1800. Fourteen years later, the British would burn those volumes—and several thousand additional tomes—when they pillaged the U.S. Capitol during the War of 1812.

The collection got a big boost when former president Thomas Jefferson agreed to sell his personal collection of 6,487 volumes to Congress in 1815 to rebuild the congressional library. Congress appropriated $23,950 for that historic purchase.

But perhaps the biggest boon to the Library’s collection came on July 8, 1870, when President Ulysses S. Grant approved an act of Congress that centralized all U.S. copyright registration and deposit activities at the Library of Congress. Copyright deposits—copies of work submitted for copyright registration—make up the core of the collections, particularly in the Library’s holdings of maps, music, motion pictures, prints and photographs. Last year, the Copyright Office forwarded more than 700,000 copies of works with a net value of $31 million to the Library’s collections.

In addition to purchase and copyright deposit, materials are acquired by gift, exchange with other libraries in the U.S. and abroad, transfer from other government agencies and through the Cataloging in Publication program (a pre-publication arrangement with publishers).

On average, the Library acquires about 2 million items annually. Some 22,000 items arrive each working day, from which about 10,000 items are added to the collections—according to guidelines outlined by the Library’s collection policy statements (and in consultation with Library specialists and recommending officers).

Items not selected for the Library’s collections are made available to other federal agencies and are then available for donation to educational institutions, public bodies and nonprofit tax-exempt organizations through the Surplus Books Program.

Download the September-October 2012 issue of the LCM in its entirety here. You can also view the archives of the Library’s former publication from 1993 to 2011.


Acquisition FAQs

Library of Congress Surplus Book Program


  1. Hey Erin Allen,This is great way growing a library.Thanks for sharing.

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