New Book: Illustrated History of the Library of Congress

Jacket design by Alfonso Iacurci

A new book from Library of Congress historian John Y. Cole, “America’s Greatest Library: An Illustrated History of the Library of Congress,” tells the story of the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution and how it came to be the world’s largest library.

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden calls the Library “a place where you can touch history and imagine your future,” and the story of its creation and evolution comes alive in this rich chronology. The book is the first authoritative history of the Library in nearly 20 years.

Published on Jan. 9 by D Giles Limited in association with the Library of Congress, “America’s Greatest Library” highlights the personalities and events that created and sustained the institution over its 217-year history, starting at a time when Washington had no other libraries or cultural institutions.

Packed with fascinating stories, compelling images and little-known nuggets of information, the narrative traces the growth of the collections with the development of the nation’s capital through a combination of concise milestones, brief essays and vivid photographs and illustrations.

The book features important acquisitions and episodes, including:

  • The November 1963 late-night search in the stacks—by flashlight—by Lincoln specialists working at the behest of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, seeking guidance on appropriate funeral arrangements for an assassinated president
  • The Brady-Handy photographic collection, containing more than 3,000 negatives made by Civil War photographer Mathew B. Brady and his nephew Levin C. Handy
  • The earliest surviving copyrighted motion picture, Thomas Edison’s 1894 “Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze”
  • The 175,000 photographs from the Farm Security Administration archive, including Dorothea Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother”
  • The 1944 world premiere of the ballet “Appalachian Spring,” choreographed by Martha Graham with music by Aaron Copland
  • The 303 glass-plate negatives documenting the earliest flights of Orville and Wilbur Wright
  • Rare sacred texts, including the Washington Haggadah, an illuminated Hebrew manuscript, and two 15th-century Bibles, the Giant Bible of Mainz and one of only three perfect vellum copies of the Gutenberg Bible
  • A variety of musical instruments and scores, including five stringed instruments made by Antonio Stradivari, the 1,600-item Dayton C. Miller flute collection, and the original score of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.”
  • The 1815 purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library after the British burned the Capitol and Jefferson’s concept of a universal library that would form the foundation of the Library’s comprehensive collection

For more than 50 years, beginning in 1966 when Cole joined the Library’s staff as an administrative intern, librarian and historian, he has sought to increase public understanding of the key role of the Library of Congress in American government, scholarship and culture. He was the founding director of the Library’s Center for the Book from 1977 to 2016, when he was named to a new position as the Library’s first official historian.

“America’s Greatest Library,” a 256-page softcover book with 250 illustrations, is available for $19.95 in the Library of Congress Shop, 10 First St. S.E., Washington, D.C., 20540-4985. You can also order online. Hardcover and e-book versions are available through book retailers. The publication of “America’s Greatest Library” was made possible by a generous gift from Julie Chrystyn Opperman.

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