1982 20¢ Library of Congress
US #2004 – When the library complex was completed in 1897, it was the largest and costliest library in the entire world.

On April 24, 1800, President John Adams officially established the Library of Congress.  It’s America’s oldest federal cultural institution, and one of the largest libraries in the world, with more than 171 million items.

James Madison was reportedly the first person to suggest the establishment of a congressional library in 1783.  Seventeen years later, President John Adams created the library as part of an act of Congress that transferred the US seat of government from Philadelphia to Washington, DC.

1982 20¢ Library of Congress Classic First Day Cover
US #2004 – Classic First Day Cover

The act, signed on April 24, 1800, included the allocation of $5,000 “for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress… and for fitting up a suitable apartment for containing them.”  The first collection of 740 books and three maps were ordered from London and housed in the US Capitol Building.  Two years later, when Thomas Jefferson was president, he appointed the first overseer of the library as well as a committee to regulate it.  His law also gave the president and vice president borrowing privileges.

1982 20¢ Library of Congress Colorano Silk First Day Cover
US #2004 – Colorano Silk First Day Cover

Disaster struck the library during the War of 1812 when British troops invaded the capital and burned the 3,000-volume collection.  Former President Jefferson recognized the importance of the library and offered his personal collection within a month.  He’d spent 50 years collecting 6,487 books that covered a wide array of topics, and believed there wasn’t a branch of science that Congress would want to exclude from their collection.  Congress purchased Jefferson’s books in January 1815 for $23,950.

2000 33¢ Library of Congress Mystic First Day Cover
US #3390 – Mystic First Day Cover

The collection grew significantly in the coming decades, but then the unthinkable happened.  There was another fire in 1851.  It burned 35,000 books, about two-thirds of the holdings at the time.  Congress immediately gave the library $168,700 to replace the lost books, but not for any new ones.

2000 33¢ Library of Congress Colorano Silk Combination First Day Cover
US #3390 – Colorano Silk Combination First Day Cover

In 1865 Ainsworth Spofford became the library’s director, and had one of the greatest impacts on the library since Thomas Jefferson.  He gained support to expand the library’s holdings, arguing “there is almost no work, within the vast range of literature and science, which may not at some time prove useful to the legislature of a great nation.”  Spofford also pushed for the passage of the Copyright Law of 1870 that required two copies of every copyrighted “book, pamphlet, map, chart, musical composition, print, engraving, or photo” created in the US be sent to the library.

2000 33¢ Library of Congress Fleetwood Plate Block First Day Cover
US #3390 – Fleetwood Plate Block First Day Cover

By 1871, the library had outgrown its space in the Capitol, so Spofford campaigned to have a new building created to house the growing collection.  Spofford “envisioned a circular, domed reading room at the library’s center, surrounded by ample space for the library’s various departments.”  Congress approved the plan for a new building in 1886.

2000 33¢ Library of Congress
US #3390 – The interior view of the dome envisioned by Spofford.

The new library, located on First Street and Independence Avenue Northwest, opened its doors to the public on November 1, 1897.  Its collection had expanded to more than one million items.  The library has grown vastly since then – now containing more than 167 million items.  It’s America’s oldest federal cultural institution and the second largest library in the world (after the British Library).  Today, the Library of Congress occupies three buildings: the Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison Memorial buildings, honoring the three presidents that made the library a reality.  While the library is open to the public, only government officials can check out books.

1938 4¢ James Madison
US #808 – Madison is often credited as the first person to suggest a Library of Congress.

1939 2¢ John Adams, carmine
US #850 – Adams signed the legislation establishing the Library of Congress in 1800.

1939 3¢ Jefferson, deep violet
US #842 – Jefferson sold thousands of books to replenish the library’s holdings after a devastating fire.

Since the 1990s, the Library has uploaded millions of objects to their website, which you can explore here.

FREE printable This Day in History album pages
Download a PDF of today’s article.
Get a binder or other supplies to create your This Day in History album.

Discover what else happened on This Day in History.

Did you like this article? Click here to rate:
Share this Article

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *