The Book Delivery System at the Library of Congress

This is a guest post by Cheryl Fox, Library of Congress Archives and Library History Collections Specialist in the Manuscript Division.

Congress began in 1873 to plan a separate building for the Library of Congress, which had outgrown its space in the U.S. Capitol Building. It took more than sixteen years to decide on the location, size, and architectural design. Construction of the new Library of Congress Building began in 1889, across from the Capitol’s East Front, and it sparked joy and pride in Congress. The building’s architecture featured the classical elements of many European national libraries, with distinctive American flourishes that echoed the hugely successful 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford specified that the book stacks be adjacent to the main reading room to enable staff to fulfill book requests in the shortest amount of time. Bernard R. Green, Superintendent of Construction, improved on this idea by connecting stack areas to the main reference desk via pneumatic tubes and a mechanical book transportation system.

Four black and white etchings showing the operations of the Library's book delivery system

The distributing desk at the center of the Jefferson Building rotunda, book-stack elevator, underground book trolley running from the Library to the Capitol, and the sending and receiving station to the underground trolley. “The Book-Delivery System at the Congressional Library,” Harper’s Weekly 41, August 14, 1897, 804.

As described in Harper’s Weekly, an attendant first placed the book request slip in the case.  The attendant then put the case in a pneumatic tube system connected to the stacks:

“…cables pass down from the rotunda to the basement below, along which they travel until they reach the elevator of the book-stack, when they ascend through the nine stories, and return by the same route. At each floor is a sliding tray, formed of brass slats, which correspond in position to the spaces between the teeth of the carrier. When an attendant on any floor has received through the pneumatic tube from the rotunda the book-slip, he places the book on the tray, and dips the latter down until all the weight of the book rests upon the curved ends. Then the first ascending carrier, whose teeth fit in between these ends, picks up the book and carries it up and down again until it reaches the rotunda, where another tray of slats receives it and tosses it automatically on to a table.”[1]

The system worked as designed, prompting visitors to record their impressions.  In 1906, British author H. G. Wells visited the Library and described the technological wonder in his book, The Future in America, writing “Mr. Putnam showed me the Rotunda, quite the most gracious reading room dome the world possesses, and explained the wonderful mechanical organization that brings almost every volume in that immense collection within a minute of one’s hand.”[2]

Green employed a similar book delivery system to facilitate Congressional book requests, in a tunnel under First Street connecting the Library to the U.S. Capitol whose construction required that an opening be cut in the wall of the Capitol. In an 1895 report, Army Corps of Engineers Brigadier-General Thomas Lincoln Casey offered an early description. “The tunnel is 6 feet in height by 4 feet in width in the clear,” he wrote, “and is ready to receive the book-carrying apparatus, pneumatic message tube, and the telephone wires for communication between the Library and the cloak rooms of the Senate and House and the tunnel terminal room in the Capitol.”[3]

Black and white photograph of large wheeled mechanical device behind gate, with book delivery slots at front

Station at the U.S. Capitol where books from the Library of Congress arrived, 1897. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Mary Simmerson Cunningham Logan, wife of Senator John A. Logan, described that connection as important for the work of Congress because “when Congress is in session, members are constantly drawing books for immediate use in debate and in committee work.” She even suggested that the separation of the Library from the Capitol was the reason Congress had been reluctant to provide a separate Library building.[4]

Members could send book requests from the Capitol whenever needed. An attendant loaded the book request slip into a cartridge and sent it to the Library via pneumatic tube. When the book was located, it was loaded into a book carrier and returned to the Capitol by an electric-powered machine. The attendant then removed the book from the carrier, making it available for pickup.

Each end of the tunnel sloped downward in order to pass between three and five feet beneath First Street, a distance of about a quarter mile. Book containers were attached to a continuous chain that stretched between the Library and the Capitol. The machine was designed to pull the book carriers quickly through the tunnel and then slowly around the wheels at each end. One hopeful estimate suggested that “a Congressman will be able to obtain a book in a shorter space of time than when the Library was in the Capitol itself.”[5]

The tunnel was completely closed around 2002 during construction of the new walkway between the Library and the Capitol Visitors Center, but the date that the tunnel stopped being used to transport books between the Capitol and the Library has yet to be determined. The Library’s pneumatic tube system for book requests began to be phased out in 1980, when Collections Management introduced the Electronic Book Paging System.

Do you want more stories like this? Then subscribe to Unfolding History – it’s free!

 

Related resources

[1] “The Book-Delivery System at the Congressional Library,” Harper’s Weekly 41, August 14, 1897, 804, 815.

[2] H.G. Wells, The Future in America: A Search After Realities (London: Chapman & Hall, 1906), 331.

[3] Thomas Lincoln Casey, “Report of Thomas Lincoln Casey, Brigadier-General, United States Army, in Charge of Construction of New Library of Congress.” December 2, 1895, 54th Cong., 4th sess., Document No. 5, 3.

[4] See Mary Simmerson Logan, Thirty Years in Washington; or, Life and Scenes in Our National Capitol (Hartford: A.D. Worthington, 1901), 434 for a laudatory description of the book conveying system in the Capitol-Library of Congress tunnel.

[5] “The Book-Delivery System at the Congressional Library,” Harper’s Weekly 41, August 14, 1897, 804, 815.