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Building the Library’s Collections: From (and for) The People

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Image from “Visions of the Daughters of Albion,” by William Blake, 1793. Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division. 

Over the past two centuries, the unparalleled collections of the Library of Congress have, in no small part, been built by America’s citizens themselves — truly collections for and by the people.

Generations of civic-minded folks have donated important collections to the Library, allowing them to remain accessible to the public for posterity.

In this way, the Library has acquired an amazing array of material that collectively chronicles centuries of human achievement, history and culture.

Lincoln’s original drafts of the Gettysburg Address, the diaries of Theodore Roosevelt, Walt Whitman’s notes for “Leaves of Grass,” the journals of Alexander Graham Bell documenting his invention of the telephone, Irving Berlin’s handwritten score for “God Bless America,” the papers of Rosa Parks, the diaries of Orville Wright chronicling the first powered flight — all were obtained by the Library via donation, gifts from citizens to the American public.

The list of donated treasures stretches on and on: first folios of Shakespeare’s plays, the original Disney storyboards for Mickey Mouse, the first photographic “selfie,” Sigmund Freud’s home movies, Steinbeck’s typescript for “The Grapes of Wrath,” 3D models of Normandy beaches used to train troops for D-Day landings, and thousands of rare baseball cards collected by businessman Benjamin K. Edwards and donated to the Library in 1954 by poet Carl Sandburg.

The Library is the oldest federal cultural institution in the nation and, with over 171 million collection items, the largest library in the world.

From the start, 221 years ago, it has been funded through the generosity of Congress and the U.S. taxpayer.

In 1800, President John Adams approved legislation that appropriated $5,000 to purchase “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress.” After the British burned the U.S. Capitol in 1814, Congress spent $23,940 to buy Thomas Jefferson’s personal library — 6,487 volumes that formed the foundation of the modern Library’s collections.

Congressional funding built the Library’s magnificent facilities on Capitol Hill and, today, pays for operations and acquisitions with money that ultimately comes from taxpayers.

But the collections likewise have been directly built by America’s citizens, by folks who follow their passions and invest their time, money and energy into researching and acquiring material, then hand over this life’s work to the Library for safekeeping in the public trust.

Collectors are the ultimate crowdsource, gathering material on whatever subjects strike their particular fancy, adding to our knowledge of our world and our past.

Early in his career, Jay I. Kislak moved to Florida and began to study the history of his new home. Over five decades, he amassed a comprehensive collection on the early history of Florida, the Caribbean and Mesoamerica and, in 2004, donated it to the Library.

A small stone carving of a kneeling man, with one hand at his knee and the other at his chin.
Hollow sculpture of a kneeling man from western Mexico. Made between 200 B.C.-A.D. 300. Jay I. Kislak Collection. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The collection is among the finest of its kind — rare masterpieces of indigenous art, original manuscripts written by historic figures such as King Philip II of Spain, conquistador Hernán Cortés, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, great maps such as the Martin Waldseemüller’s 1516 Carta Marina.

Photograph showing soldier in uniform, wife in dress and hat, and two daughters wearing matching coats and hats.
An unidentified Black Union soldier, posing with his wife and daughters. The picture was found in Cecil County, Maryland. Liljenquist Family Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

Inspired by a chance encounter with a Civil War photograph in a shop in Ellicott City, Maryland, Tom Liljenquist and his three sons spent some 15 years building a major collection of rare photographic portraits of Union and Confederate soldiers and their families. The family gave the collection to the Library in 2010 and continue to add to it — its value has surpassed $4.5 million.

Gertrude Clarke Whittall grew up hearing musicians perform live in her Massachusetts home, fostering a lifelong love of classical music. Later, as she traveled the world, Whittall saw great examples of musical instruments on exhibit, sitting behind glass, and had an idea: Wouldn’t it be nice to build a collection of instruments by the supreme makers and make them accessible to the public back home in America, to not just be seen but also heard in concert?

The incredible collection she built and donated to the Library in the 1930s — five stringed instruments by Stradivari and five others by Amati, Vuillaume and Guarneri — is available to researchers and, today, the instruments still are regularly played for public audiences, just as she’d intended.

Not all collections are so grand in ambition; they often reflect the extremely specific interests of the folks who build them.

Charles B. Sonneborn, a music-loving ophthalmologist, collected nearly 800 examples of sheet music that feature the word “eyes” in the title, putting classics (“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”) alongside long-forgotten efforts that, nevertheless, instantly evoke the sensibilities of eras gone by (“Never Make Eyes at the Gals with the Guys Who Are Bigger Than You”).

During the mid-20th-century golden age of travel, railway engineer György Rázsó so enjoyed the colorful, arty luggage labels produced by hotels that he planned vacations around collecting them — and, naturally, declined to actually stick them on his luggage so that they would remain pristine.

Drawing of the Clover Inn, in the shape of a clover, showing the one-story hotel with large trees in the background, promising "good meals" and "comfortable cabins"
Noemi Razso donated her father’s collection of luggage labels from hotels across the United States in the mid-20th century. Photo: Shawn Miller.

Rázsó gathered 1,882 such labels over 30 years and eventually donated them to the Library — a collection of perhaps trivial-seeming things that nonetheless presents a visual record of American hotel advertising.

Collections of such things, of so-called “ephemera,” help bring history to life.

Travelers today, accustomed to the cattle-car quality of modern travel, can look at a luggage label for the Clover Inn, tucked cozily away among the giant redwoods, and just feel the difference in the eras. A music lover could leaf through Sonneborn’s collection and appreciate the seismic shifts in artistic sensibilities across the generations.

The Library and, ultimately, the public get the benefits of not just the collectors’ time, energy and resources, but also their expertise.

Collectors spend years searching and researching, finding important and unique items and learning about them. In the course of doing so, they often develop specialized knowledge that is an invaluable resource in itself.

The world is big, the material that might be collected from it is endless, and the Library’s time and resources are finite. Billions of photos are taken in a year; the Library can’t assess, gather or accept them all.

Collectors, using their knowledge and experience, select out the best. As a result, they build remarkable, important compilations that chronicle countless aspects of our history.

Lessing J. Rosenwald, heir to the Sears, Roebuck and Co. fortune, built a collection of thousands of exceptionally rare illustrated books and prints that bring the most pivotal eras of Western history to life — great works such as “Epistolae et Evangelia,” the finest illustrated book of the 15th century; a supreme gathering of books, drawings and engravings by poet and artist William Blake; or the Giant Bible of Mainz, the last large handwritten Bible produced before the advent of the printing press.

Katherine Golden Bitting, a food chemist for the Department of Agriculture, amassed a personal collection of materials about growing, preparing, cooking, preserving and eating food — including a 15th-century Italian manuscript that served as the basis of history’s first printed cookbook. After Bitting died, her husband presented the 4,346-volume collection to the Library.

Dayton C. Miller grew up in Ohio obsessed with science and music — at his high school graduation, he delivered a lecture about the sun and, as part of the ceremony, played the flute.

Miller studied astronomy, became an expert on acoustics, helped design sonically perfect music venues, debated Einstein on relativity and pioneered the use of X-rays in medicine — he toured the country promoting them and once underwent a full-body X-ray to demonstrate the procedure’s value.

He also became one of the world’s foremost experts on the flute. Miller collected enormous numbers of music scores, reference books and related material and thousands of flutes, creating the definitive collection on the instrument.

He also wrote music for the flute and built his own — including one of 22-karat gold that, he calculated, took 2,250 hours to make. He was such an expert that makers from around the globe traveled to him to consult on manufacturing their instruments.

That continues today, in a way. Miller donated his collection to the Library and, 80 years after his death, researchers and musicians from around the world still come here to study it and play the instruments.

Likewise, shelves are lined with Civil War books whose pages feature portraits from the Liljenquist collection, staring back at you across the generations. Researchers from across the globe have applied modern technology to their studies of the Whittall Strads to learn how a maker from a small town in 17th-century Italy could make a violin that still sounds so good 300 years later.

Those things wouldn’t happen without the civic-minded citizens who play their own role in the preservation of our cultural heritage, building collections and sharing them with the rest of the world — gifts that keep on giving.

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