35,000 burned books later…

As a disclaimer: These photos were taken during a visit in February/March 2016, so this post may not be representative of this site today.

Library of Congress

The library today occupies three separate buildings: the Thomas Jefferson Building, the oldest of the three; the John Adams Building, which opened its doors in 1939; and the James Madison Memorial Building, which also serves as the home of the US Copyright Office. They are all connected by underground passageways, for easier communication between them.

The Thomas Jefferson Building (which is the only one I visited) was designed by Paul J. Pelz in partnership with John L. Smithmeyer after winning a competition in 1873. Later, Smithmeyer was dismissed, leaving Pelz as main architect, though he himself was replaced in 1892 by Edward Pearce Casey. The building took eleven years to complete and finally opened to the public in 1897. While originally known as the Library of Congress Building, its name was changed in 1980 to honor the former US President Thomas Jefferson for being instrumental in the establishment of the library.

And what a library…

Besides being one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever been to, the Library of Congress is the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States, and serves as the country’s de facto national library. First proposed by James Madison in 1783, the library was established in 1800, the same year that the seat of government moved from Philadelphia to D.C. Its original collection consisted of 740 books and three maps.

In 1814, the British took over the city during the War of 1812 and burned a number of buildings, including the wing of the Capitol that housed the library at the time, burning the 3,000 volumes that comprised it. Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his own library to replace this collection, a proposal which was accepted by Congress. He had spent 50 years collecting books in several languages on philosophy, history, travel, natural sciences, studies of ancient Greece and Rome, and modern science. He even owned cookbooks, which were not traditionally kept in legislative libraries, but Jefferson insisted that all subjects had a place in the Library of Congress.

Yet another fire took place in 1851, which destroyed about two thirds of the collection and of Jefferson’s original transfer (in total, 35,000 books burned). Work to replace these lost books began in 1852, and by 2008 the institution’s librarians had replaced all but 300.

Under Ainsworth Rand Spofford, who directed the Library of Congress from 1865-1897, the library grew, acquiring the vast libraries of the Smithsonian and of historian Peter Force. By 1876, the collection had reached 300,000 volumes, and was tied with the Boston Public Library as the country’s largest. In 1897, its by then 840,000-volume collection moved to the institution’s new headquarters, the Thomas Jefferson Building.

Today, the library holds more than 32 million catalogued books in 470 languages, more than 61 million manuscripts, the largest rare book collection in North America, the rough draft of the US Declaration of Independence, and a Gutenberg Bible (one of three perfect vellum copies known to exist), among others.

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