What is the Library of Congress? - History & Explanation

Instructor: Amy Lively
In this lesson we'll explore the Library of Congress. Learn more about the history of the nation's oldest federal cultural institution, then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress

The First Library of Congress

When the capital of the United States was in New York City and Philadelphia, members of Congress had little trouble finding a library to help with research. That was not the case when the capital moved to Washington, D.C. in 1800. The new capital was still a rural area, surrounded by farms and tobacco fields. With no libraries in the area, the bill that officially transferred the federal government from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. also included a provision for a library for Congress.

The original Library of Congress cost $5,000 and consisted of about 3,000 books in a corner of the Capitol building. However, when British troops invaded Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812, they burned much of the city. On August 24, 1814, the British burned the Capitol building to the ground, destroying almost all of the congressional library.

Jefferson Sells His Library

Few things were more important to Thomas Jefferson than books. By the time the congressional library burned, he had been collecting books for 50 years. He had accumulated over 6,000 books on a wide range of topics including poetry, cooking, science, and foreign languages. Jefferson believed that a well-rounded education was important and there were few topics not represented in his personal library.

With the government faced with rebuilding its congressional library, Jefferson offered to sell his books to the government. Some in Congress hesitated, either because they could not understand why the government needed cookbooks and books in foreign languages or because they simply did not like Jefferson. His offer was put to a vote and in January 1815, Congress paid $23,950 for Jefferson's collection of 6,487 books.

Copyright Act of 1870

Congress had a difficult time deciding where to keep its library. A bill was introduced in 1817 to give the library its own building, but that failed. The library was in the attic of the Capitol building for a while, and then it was moved to a new library room in the Capitol in 1824. After that library was devastated by a fire in 1851, iron was used to build a new fireproof library room in 1853.

By all accounts, the restored library was very elegant, but when Congress passed the Copyright Act of 1870, it was not long before the library outgrew its space. The new law required that two copies of copyrighted items be sent to the Library of Congress. Librarian Ainsworth Rand Spofford said that if the library did not get its own building, he would soon be 'presiding over the greatest chaos in America.'

Building a New Library

It may have been a bit of competition with Europe that ultimately helped get the Library of Congress its own building. Americans traveling abroad in the late 19th century marveled at the beauty of European architecture. They wanted the U.S. to have buildings that rivaled what they saw in Europe. After a decade of debate about architects, design and location, Congress approved plans for an Italian Renaissance-style building in 1886. It was intended to be not just a warehouse for books, but also a display of American creativity and ingenuity. Construction required 400,000 cubic feet of granite and over 3,000 tons of steel, while 42 American painters and sculptors contributed to the interior. The total cost was $6,500,000. When it opened on November 1, 1897, it was considered one of the most beautiful, safe, and expensive libraries in the world.

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