The Library of Congress has survived an attack by the British and a lack of government funding to become the world’s biggest library, with the helping hands of two people in the 19th century.
One person is familiar to most Americans: Thomas Jefferson. The other is a newspaper editor who came to Washington during the Civil War and created an institution on a grand scale.
Ainsworth Rand Spofford was a journalist who reported on the war and lobbied to become the head of the Library of Congress. His three decades as the Librarian of Congress put the institution on the path of becoming a world-class institution. Subsequent librarians expanded the scope and impact of the institution.
The Library of Congress was created by Congress (of course) on April 24, 1800, with the approval of President Thomas Jefferson. But it had a rocky start. The book collection was kept at the Capitol, and only Congress, the president and the vice president (at the time, Aaron Burr) were allowed to borrow books.
It was destroyed in 1814 when British troops attacked the building. Fortunately, former President Jefferson, the continent’s biggest book lover, agreed to sell his collection to the Library for the sum of $23,950 in 1815. Congress passed the bill to approve the purchase by a narrow margin along party lines.
The Jefferson purchase doubled the library’s size, to more than 6,000 books, and it planted Jefferson’s ideals about global learning as a philosophy that would set the stage for the institution’s growth after the Civil War.
Before Spofford took over as the Librarian of Congress, the institution served mostly as a resource for lawmakers. Much of the collection, which grew to 55,000 volumes, was destroyed in a Christmas Eve fire in 1851.
Spofford sought to make the Library of Congress the biggest library in the United States, which he was able to do within three years after his appointment by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864.
Spofford also played a key role in a move that would guarantee the Library’s vital role in national learning. In 1870, Congress appointed the Library of Congress, and its librarian, as the institution that coordinated all copyright functions in the United States. The law required that two copies of every book, pamphlet, map, print, photograph, and piece of music be deposited in the Library of Congress. In subsequent years, movies, audio recordings, and digital materials became part of the copyright registration process.
Spofford also championed a standalone building for the Library of Congress outside of the Capitol building to host the burgeoning collection. It took 26 years–the remainder of Spofford’s tenure as Librarian–to get the building approved and constructed.
The new Library (now known as the Jefferson Building) was based on the Paris Opera House and instantly became a national monument and source of pride.
Today, the Library of Congress continues its mission to “support the Congress in fulfilling its constitutional duties and to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”
Its collection contains more than 155 million items, including more than 35 million catalogued books and other print materials in 460 languages; more than 68 million manuscripts; the largest rare book collection in North America; and the world’s largest collection of legal materials, films, maps, sheet music, and sound recordings.
Its current rival for the title of the world’s biggest library is the British Library in London. It also contains more than 150 million items, but it trails the Library of Congress when it comes to shelf space used.
One of the current exhibitions at the Library of Congress is a reconstruction of Jefferson’s original library.
The Library was able to assemble most of the books lost in the 1851 fire, and it acquired some rare volumes with the support of Jerry Jones, the current owner of the Dallas Cowboys football team.
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