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A Legacy of Librarians

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A drawing of the Library of Congress, Smithmeyer & Pelz Architects, ca. 1896. Prints and Photographs Division.
A drawing of the Library of Congress, Smithmeyer & Pelz Architects, ca. 1896. Prints and Photographs Division.

(The following story, written by Center for the Book Director John Y. Cole, is featured in the November/December 2015 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)

Thirteen Librarians of Congress helped shape a legislative, national and international library.

Today the Library of Congress is truly a national library that serves the research needs of the U.S. Congress, other federal agencies in all branches of government, the American public and the global community. But that broad mission was not always apparent or supported. The dual nature of the Library of Congress—a legislative library and a national institution—was often debated by legislators and Librarians of Congress, especially during the institution’s first years.

The Early Years

The Library of Congress was established as a legislative branch agency of the American government by an act of Congress, signed into law by President John Adams on April 24, 1800. Its primary purpose was, and remains, reference and research service for Congress.

Congress established the position of Librarian of Congress with oversight from Congress’ Joint Committee on the Library. The Librarian was to be appointed by the President of the United States. The duties of the Librarian were delegated to the Clerk of the House of Representatives.

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson asked House Clerk John James Beckley to serve as the first Librarian of Congress. Beckley assisted the Joint Committee in ordering books and publishing the Library’s first printed catalog of its holdings. Jefferson took a keen interest in the Library and frequently provided advice regarding purchases.

After Beckley’s death in 1807, Jefferson named the new House clerk, Patrick Magruder, as the second Librarian of Congress. Magruder, a Maryland lawyer and politician, was held responsible by Congress for failing to protect the Library and its financial records when the British burned the Capitol, which housed the congressional library, on Aug. 24, 1814. He resigned on Jan. 28, 1815.

The acquisition by Congress of Jefferson’s personal library in 1815 widened the scope and doubled the size of the Library’s collection, prompting President James Madison to name the first full-time Librarian of Congress. George Watterston, a local novelist and poet, was an ardent nationalist who felt that Jefferson’s library was “a most admirable substratum for a National Library.” He proposed a separate building for the Library of Congress since the United States, in his view, should have a library “equal in grandeur to the wealth, the taste, and the science of the nation.”

Congress did not share his view. Most Members of Congress felt its library should solely serve its legislative needs. The heated debate over the purchase of Jefferson’s library—which included books on many subjects and in several languages—revived old arguments against spending sparse government dollars to create a national library of cultural treasures in the European tradition. The 1815 expenditure of nearly $24,000 for Jefferson’s library of approximately 6,500 volumes also was a convenient excuse for limiting future appropriations for the Library.

Watterston’s librarianship came to an abrupt end in 1829 when newly elected President Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, replaced him with another Democrat: John Silva Meehan, a local printer and publisher. Any move toward creating a national library would be hampered by the growing rivalry between the North and South that would culminate with a bloody civil war. Moreover, Senator James A. Pearce of Maryland, who headed the Joint Committee on the Library from 1845 until his death in 1862, felt the Library of Congress should focus on its legislative responsibilities. This, coupled with a disastrous Christmas Eve fire in 1851 that destroyed two- thirds of the congressional library’s collection of 55,000 items, slowed the Library’s development and growth.

Nonetheless, Congress voted to replace the books and to build a new fireproof room for its library in the U.S. Capitol. The elegant new room opened on Aug. 23, 1853. Librarian of Congress Meehan continued to fulfill the wishes of Senator Pearce with regard to Library acquisitions and functions. As a result, the institution’s role in national functions continued to diminish.

On March 8, 1861, Sen. Pearce informed newly elected President Abraham Lincoln that the president “has always deferred to the wishes of Congress” regarding the appointment of the Librarian of Congress, and that the Joint Committee wished to retain Librarian Meehan. Lincoln ignored Pearce and on May 24 appointed a political supporter, John G. Stephenson, a physician from Terre Haute, Indiana, to become the fifth Librarian of Congress.

Stephenson spent less time supervising the Library than he did serving as a physician for the Union Army. He could do so because in September 1861, he had hired Cincinnati bookseller and journalist Ainsworth Rand Spofford as his assistant. For all practical purposes, Spofford ran the Library until Stephenson’s resignation in December 1864. Lincoln promptly appointed Spofford as Librarian of Congress.

The Modern Librarians

Spofford brought the Library of Congress into the modern age. In a post- Civil War period of growing cultural nationalism, he transformed the Library of Congress into an institution of national significance. He demonstrated to Congress that its library could serve simultaneously as both a parliamentary library and a national library. With full support of the Joint Committee on the Library, he expanded the Library’s space in the Capitol; centralized U.S. copyright registration and deposit at the Library in order to rapidly develop comprehensive collections of Americana; and promoted the authorization and construction of the Library’s first separate building. The “book palace of the American people,” known today as the Library’s Thomas Jefferson building, opened its doors in November 1897.

On July 1, 1897, President William McKinley appointed a new Librarian of Congress to supervise the Library’s move from the Capitol to the new building and to implement a major reorganization including a separate copyright department. John Russell Young, who served until his death on Jan. 17, 1899, was a journalist and former diplomat. A skilled administrator, Young worked hard to build the collections and expand the scope of services provided to Congress. He began the process of reclassifying the Library’s collection and compiling bibliographies specifically for the use of Congress. He also inaugurated the Library’s first services for the blind.

Following Young’s death, President McKinley appointed Herbert Putnam, director of the Boston Public Library, the first experienced librarian to hold the post. Putnam believed that a true national library should serve the cataloging and bibliographic needs of other libraries.

By 1901, the Library of Congress was the first American library to house 1 million volumes and that year published the first volume of a new classification scheme, based on its holdings. The Library also began printing and selling its catalog cards to other libraries. In announcing the card distribution service, Putnam said, “American instinct and habit revolt against multiplication of brain effort and outlay where a multiplication of results can be achieved by machinery.”

During his 40-year tenure, Putnam made American libraries an important Library of Congress constituency; planned and built the Library’s Annex (now the John Adams building), which opened to the public in 1939; and undertook a new international role for the institution through the acquisition of materials from other countries. Under Putnam, the Library established a Legislative Reference Service in 1914 to expand services to Congress. Early in his tenure, Putnam had courted the support of President Theodore Roosevelt who, in his first annual message to Congress on Dec. 3, 1901, called the Library of Congress “the one national library.” When Putnam retired in 1939, the Library had a staff of 1,100, a book collection of six million volumes, and an annual appropriation of approximately $3 million.

The role of libraries in a modern democracy captured the imagination of Putnam’s successor, writer and poet Archibald MacLeish. Appointed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, MacLeish served as Librarian during wartime while presiding over a major administrative reorganization. MacLeish developed explicit statements of the Library’s objectives along with “Canons of Selection” for its collections. In addition to serving Congress, MacLeish believed that the Library should be a “reference library of the people.”

MacLeish resigned in 1944 to become assistant secretary of state. His assistant, Luther Evans, was nominated by President Harry Truman the following year. Evans was a political scientist who had been involved in the Library’s reorganization. Like MacLeish, he assessed the role and collections of the Library “for the post-war era” and urged the expansion of the Library’s national and international roles. Evans resigned in 1953 to become the third director-general of UNESCO.

The next year, President Dwight Eisenhower nominated L. Quincy Mumford, director of the Cleveland Public Library and president-elect of the American Library Association, as the next Librarian of Congress. During his 20-year term, Mumford presided over an unparalleled period of expansion. The book collections grew from 10 to 16 million volumes, the staff more than tripled and the annual appropriation multiplied from $10 million to more than $100 million.

Under Mumford, both legislative and national services were strengthened, particularly services to the library community. A report commissioned by the Joint Committee on the Library in 1962 urged further expansion of the Library’s national activities. The Library also expanded its foreign holdings, which were identified as weak during World War II. Developments in library automation during the 1960s allowed the library to distribute its cataloging data in machine readable form. The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, which created the Congressional Research Service, underscored the Library’s priority to serve legislators, but did not preclude its growing national and international activities.

In 1975, President Gerald Ford nominated historian Daniel J. Boorstin as the 12th Librarian of Congress. Boorstin presided over the construction and move into a third building on Capitol Hill (the James Madison Memorial Building), which opened in 1980. He focused on strengthening the Library’s ties with Congress and developing new relationships with scholars, publishers, authors, booklovers, cultural leaders and the business community. With congressional support, Boorstin created the American Folklife Center in 1976 and the Center for the Book the following year—two educational outreach endeavors that continue to flourish today.

Appointed by President Ronald Reagan as the 13th Librarian of Congress, historian James H. Billington began his tenure in September 1987 by stating his intention to leverage the new digital technologies to make the collections universally accessible in the 21st century. Making good on that promise during his tenure broadened the Library’s role to a global information resource.


Librarians of Congress, 1802-2015

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