U.S. #2004 – When the complex was completed in 1897, it was the largest and costliest library in the entire world.

Library of Congress Opens to the Public

On November 1, 1897, America’s Library of Congress opened its doors.

James Madison was reportedly the first person to suggest the establishment of a congressional library in 1783. The library was officially created 17 years later by President John Adams. The legislation set aside $5,000 for the purchase of books that Congress would find useful. The first collection was housed in the U.S. Capitol Building and consisted of 740 books and three maps. Two years later, when Thomas Jefferson was President, he appointed the first overseer of the library as well as a committee to regulate it.

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.

U.S. #3390 – The interior view of the dome envisioned by Spofford.

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.

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 U.S. be sent to the library.

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.

U.S. #590 – The librarians have succeeded in replacing all but 300 of Jefferson’s books that were destroyed by the 1851 fire.

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 138 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.

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  1. Thank you for these wonderful articles. They are very informational and we can all learn a lot from the history that is contained in them.


    Carol Artess

  2. I wonder. Did anyone propose that the second copy of each book, paper, etc. be housed in a different location to ward off the possibility of another fire and another tragic loss? It seems like they should have learned a lesson the first two times. Are what is there now at least computerized to save the content?

  3. So, the British Library is larger than ours, eh? Ours would probably be larger if they hadn’t burned it down 204 years ago.

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