Library of Congress

views updated May 11 2018


The Library of Congress, located in Washington, D.C., is the world's largest library, with nearly 110 million items in almost every language and format stored on 532 miles of bookshelves. Its collections constitute the world's most comprehensive record of human creativity and knowledge. Founded in 1800 to serve the reference needs of Congress, the library has grown from an original collection of 6,487 books to a current accumulation of more than 16 million books and more than 120 million other items and collections, from ancient Chinese wood-block prints to compact discs.

The Library of Congress was created by Act of April 24, 1800 (2 Stat. 56), which provided for the removal of the seat of government to the new capital city of Washington, D.C. (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania had formerly served as the nation's capital), and for $5,000 "for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress … and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein." The library was housed in the new capitol until August 1814, when British troops invaded Washington, D.C., and burned the capitol building, destroying nearly three thousand volumes of the small congressional library. The first major book collection acquired by Congress was the personal library of former president thomas jefferson, purchased in 1815 at a cost of $23,950. In 1851 a second fire destroyed two-thirds of the library's accumulated holdings of 35,000 volumes, including a substantial portion of the Jefferson library. Congress voted a massive appropriation to replace the lost books, and by the end of the Civil War, the collections of the library had grown to 82,000 volumes.

The librarian of Congress is appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate. In 1864 President abraham lincoln appointed as librarian Ainsworth Rand Spofford, who opened the library to the public and greatly expanded its collections. Spofford successfully advocated a change in the copyright law so that the library would receive two free copies of every book, map, chart, musical composition, engraving, print, and photograph submitted for copyright. Under subsequent legislation (2 U.S.C.A. §§ 131–168d) the library's acquisitions included free copies of the Congressional Record and of all U.S. statutes, which Spofford parlayed into document exchanges with all foreign nations that had diplomatic relations with the United States.

Soon the Capitol's library rooms, attics, and hallways were filled with the library's growing collections, necessitating construction of the library's first permanent building, the Thomas Jefferson Building, which opened in 1897. The john adams Building was added by Congress in 1939, and the james madison Memorial Building

in 1980. These three buildings provide nearly 65 acres of floor space.

Supported mainly by appropriations from Congress, the library also uses income derived from funds received from foundations and other private sources and administered by the Library of Congress Trust Fund Board, as well as monetary gifts presented for direct application (2 U.S.C.A. §§ 154–163). Many of the greatest items in the library have come directly from individual U.S. citizens or were purchased with money donated by them. Gifts that have enriched the cultural heritage of the nation include the private papers of President Lincoln from his son robert todd lincoln; rare Stradivarius violins used for public performances; the Lessing J. Rosenwald collection of illustrated books and incunabula (early works of art or industry); Joseph Pennell's contribution of Whistler drawings and letters; and hundreds of thousands of letters and documents from musicians, artists, scientists, writers, and public figures.

Congressional Research Service

The library's first responsibility is service to Congress. One department, the congressional research service (CRS), operates exclusively for the legislative branch of the government. The CRS provides objective, nonpartisan research, analysis, and information to assist Congress in its legislative, oversight, and representative functions.

The CRS evolved from the Legislative Reference Service, a unit developed by a former librarian, Herbert Putnam, whose tenure with the library spanned 40 years. The Legislative Reference Service was developed to prepare indexes, digests, and compilations of law that Congress might need, but it quickly became a specialized reference unit for information transfer and research.

The CRS mandate has grown over the years in response to the increasing scope of public policy issues on the congressional agenda. The service answers more than 500,000 requests for research annually. Its staff anticipates congressional inquiries and provides timely and objective information and analyses in response to those inquiries at every stage of the legislative process and in an interdisciplinary manner. The CRS also creates and maintains a number of specialized reading lists for members of Congress and their staffs and disseminates other materials of interest. Finally, it maintains the parts of the Library of Congress's automated information system that cover legislative matters, including digests of all public bills and briefing papers on major legislative issues. The CRS director, assisted by a management team, oversees and coordinates the work of seven research divisions, which span a range of public policy subjects and disciplines.


The library's extensive collections include books, serials, and pamphlets on every subject, in a multitude of languages, and in various formats including map, photograph, manuscript, motion picture, and sound recording. Among them are the most comprehensive collections of Chinese, Japanese, and Russian language books outside Asia and the former Soviet Union; volumes relating to science and to U.S. and foreign law; the world's largest collection of published aeronautical literature; and the most extensive collection of incunabula in the Western Hemisphere.

The manuscript collections, containing about 46 million items, relate to manifold aspects of U.S. history and civilization and include the personal papers of most presidents, from george washington to calvin coolidge, as well as papers of people from many diverse arenas, such as Margaret Mead, Sigmund Freud, henry kissinger, thurgood marshall, and thousands of others.

The library houses a perfect copy of the Gutenberg Bible, one of three such copies in the world. It also contains the oldest written material, a Sumerian cuneiform tablet dating from 2040 b.c.; the earliest known copyrighted motion picture, Fred Ott's Sneeze, copyrighted by Thomas Edison in 1893; and a book so small that it requires a needle to turn the pages. The musical collections contain volumes and pieces, in manuscript and published form, from classic works to the newest popular compositions. Other materials available for research include maps and views; photographic records from the daguerreotype to the latest news photo; musical recordings; speeches and poetry readings; prints, drawings, and posters; government documents, newspapers, and periodicals from all over the world; and motion pictures, microfilms, and audiotapes and videotapes.


Since 1870 the Library of Congress has been responsible for copyrights registered by the U.S. Copyright Office, located in the Madison Building (Acts of July 8, 1870 [16 Stat. 212–217]; February 19, 1897 [29 Stat. 545, codified as amended at 2 U.S.C.A. 131 (1997)]; October 19, 1976 [90 Stat. 2541, codified as amended at 2 U.S.C.A. 170 (1997)]). The Copyright Office has handled more than 20 million copyright registrations and transfers and processes 600,000 new registrations annually. All copyrightable works, whether published or unpublished, are subject to a system of statutory protection that gives the copyright owner certain exclusive rights, including the right to reproduce the work and distribute it to the public by sale, rental, lease, or lending. Works of authorship include books; periodicals; computer programs; musical compositions; song lyrics; dramas and dramatico-musical compositions; pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works; architectural works; pantomimes and choreographic works; sound recordings; motion pictures; and other audiovisual works.

American Folklife Center

The American Folklife Center was established in the Library of Congress by Act of January 2, 1976 (20 U.S.C.A. § 2102 et seq.). Its function is to coordinate and carry out federal and nonfederal programs to support, preserve, and present American folklife through activities such as receiving and maintaining folklife collections, scholarly research, field projects, performances and exhibitions, festivals, workshops, publications, and audiovisual presentations. The center is the national repository for folk-related recordings, manuscripts, and other unpublished materials. Its reading room contains over 3,500 books and periodicals; a sizable collection of magazines, newsletters, unpublished theses, and dissertations; field notes; and many textual and musical transcriptions and recordings. The center also administers the Federal Cylinder Project, which is charged with preserving and disseminating music and oral traditions recorded on wax cylinders dating from the late 1800s to the early 1940s. A cultural conservation study was developed at the center in cooperation with the interior department pursuant to congressional mandate. Various conferences, workshops, and symposia are given throughout the year, and a series of outdoor concerts of traditional music are scheduled monthly at the library, from April to September.

Center for the Book

The Center for the Book was established in the Library of Congress by Act of October 17, 1977 (2 U.S.C.A. § 171 et seq.), to stimulate public interest in books, reading, and libraries and to encourage the study of books and print culture. The center is a catalyst for promoting and exploring the vital role of books, reading, and libraries throughout the world. Since 1984, at least 29 states have established statewide book centers that are affiliated with this national center.

National Preservation Program

To preserve its collections, the library uses the full range of traditional methods of conservation and binding as well as newer technologies such as the deacidification of paper and the digitization of original materials. These measures include maintaining materials in the proper environment, ensuring the proper care and handling of the collections, and stabilizing fragile and rare materials by placing them in acid-free containers to protect them from further deterioration. Research on long-standing preservation problems is conducted by the library's Preservation Research and Testing Office.

The National Film Preservation Board, established by the National Film Preservation Act of 1992 (2 U.S.C.A. § 179b), serves as a public advisory group to the librarian of Congress. The board consists of 36 members and alternates representing many parts of the diverse U.S. film industry, archives, scholars, and others. As its primary mission, the board works to ensure the survival, conservation, and increased public availability of the U. S. film heritage. This mission includes advising the librarian on the annual selection of films to the National Film Registry and counseling the librarian on the development and implementation of the national film preservation plan.

Extension of Service

The Library of Congress extends its service through an interlibrary loan system; photoduplication of books, manuscripts, maps, newspapers, and prints in its collections; a centralized cataloging program whereby the library acquires material published all over the world as well as material from other libraries and from U.S. publishers; and the development of general schemes of classification (the Library of Congress classification for law and the Dewey decimal system), subject headings, and cataloging, embracing the entire field of printed matter.

The library also provides for the preparation of bibliographic lists responsive to the needs of government and research; the maintenance and publication of the National Union catalogs and other cooperative publications; the publication of catalogs, bibliographic guides, and texts of original manuscripts and rare books; the circulation in traveling exhibitions of items from the library's collections; and the provision of books in Braille, talking book records, and books on tape. In addition, the library employs an optical disk system that supplies articles on public policy to Congress and provides research and analytical services on a fee-for-service basis to the executive and judicial branches.

Users outside the library can gain free access to its online catalog of files through the internet. Major exhibitions of the library are available online, as are selected prints and photographs, historic films, and political speeches. Internet sites include the Library of Congress World Wide Web (<>); THOMAS, an important legislative service containing a searchable full text of the Congressional Record, texts of recent bills, and congressional committee information (<>); American Memory Historical Collections, which includes documents, images, and other information about U.S. history (<>); Global Gateway, which provides presentations regarding world culture and resources (<>); pointers to external Internet resources including extensive international, national, state, and local government information; and an international electronic library of resources arranged by Library of Congress subject headings. The Library of Congress also contributes to the National Digital Library more than 40 million bibliographic records, summaries of congressional bills, copyright registrations, bibliographies and research guides, summaries of foreign laws, an index of Southeast Asian POW-MIA documents, selections from the library's unique historical collections, and more.

Reference Resources

Admission to the various research facilities of the library is free, and no introduction or credentials are required for persons over high school age. A photo identification and current address are required for the library's reading rooms and collections, and additional requirements apply for entry into certain collections like those of the Manuscript Division, Rare Book, and Special Collections Division, and Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division. Priority is given to inquiries pertaining to the library's holdings of special materials or to subjects in which its resources are unique. Demands for service to Congress and federal agencies have increased, and thus reference service to others through correspondence is limited.

further readings

Chan, Lois Mai. 1998. "Still Robust at 100: A Century of LC Subject Headings." LC Information Bulletin. Available online at <> (accessed July 28, 2003).

Cole, John Young. 1993. Jefferson's Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress.

Library of Congress. Available online at <> (accessed July 28, 2003).

——. 1996. Facts about the Library of Congress. March.

——. 1996. Twenty-five Questions Most Frequently Asked by Visitors. May.

——. Public Affairs Office. 1993. Background and History. September.

U.S. Government Manual Website. Available online at <> (accessed November 10, 2003).


Copyright; Copyright, International.

Library of Congress

views updated May 11 2018


LIBRARY OF CONGRESS. The Library of Congress is the largest repository of human knowledge and creativity in the world. Located primarily in three buildings on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., its collections have grown from the original 740 volumes and 3 maps acquired from a London dealer in 1801 to over 120 million items. Its mission is to make those collections available to the Congress of the United States, to the offices of the Federal Government, and to the American people and researchers from around the world.

History and Evolution of the Collections

The Library was created by two acts of Congress. The first, on 24 April 1800, in appropriating funds to relocate the national government from Philadelphia to the District of Columbia, allocated $5,000 for the purchase of books and provided for the "fitting up of a suitable apartment for containing them." The second, on 26 January 1802, provided that the president should appoint a Librarian of Congress, overseen by a Congressional joint committee. The same act granted borrowing privileges to the president and vice president.

The early collection appears to have stretched beyond "the purpose of reference" specified by President Jefferson in his recommendation to the first Librarian, John James Beckley. The initial purchase was limited to books on law, political science, economics, and history, but gifts from members of Congress and others seem to have added materials in geography, natural history, medicine, and literature. By 1812 the Library possessed three thousand volumes. Soon thereafter dramatic events forever altered the Library. The British occupied Washington, D.C., in August 1814 and burned the Capitol, destroying much of the Library's collection. After some debate, Congress agreed to replace the loss by purchasing the personal library of Thomas Jefferson, 6,487 volumes, at the cost of $23,950. The resulting Library of Congress was both twice the size of its predecessor and contained a rich selection of philosophy, classical literature, and scientific material, probably the finest collection in the country. The Library also acquired President Jefferson's method of classification, which would continue to be applied to the collections until the close of the nineteenth century.

The collections grew slowly before the Civil War. Access was broadened to include cabinet members, and in 1832, a separate law collection was created and access was given to justices of the Supreme Court. But there were losses, too. Two-thirds of the collection was destroyed by fire on Christmas Eve, 1851. Later in that decade, Congress took away the Library's role in distributing public documents, giving it to the Bureau of the Interior, and at the same time transferred the role of exchanging books with foreign institutions from the Library to the Department of State. In 1859 registration of copyrights was moved to the Patent Office, depriving the Library of the depository function that had done much to build its collections.

Significant growth in the Library began only with the appointment of Ainsworth Rand Spofford as Librarian, 1865–1897. The copyright depository program returned that same year, and the Smithsonian Institution's library was purchased the next. Spofford organized an international document exchange program and also took in several important acquisitions and gifts. The Library's 80,000 volumes of 1870 became 840,000 volumes by 1897, 40 percent of that growth coming from the copyright depository. The growth necessitated the Library's move out of the Capitol in 1897 into its new building, now called the Thomas Jefferson Building. In that same year, Congress enacted a new organization for the Library, giving the Librarian full control over the institution and subjecting his appointment to Senatorial approval.

Spofford's immediate successors, John Russell Young, 1897–1899, and Herbert Putnam, 1899–1939, continued to build the collections and undertook innovations appropriate to the Library's growing national significance. Young inaugurated national service to the blind and physically disabled. His catalogers, Charles Martel and J. C. M. Hanson, also undertook a new classification scheme, finally abandoning Jefferson's method. Putnam, the first professionally trained Librarian, initiated interlibrary loan service and began sale and distribution of the Library's printed catalog cards. He greatly expanded the Library's international exchange programs and brought in major collections of Hebrew, Indic, Chinese, and Japanese materials. In 1930 he convinced Congress to allocate $1.5 million to acquire the Vollbehr Collection of incunabula, bringing the Library one of three existing perfect vellum copies of the Gutenberg Bible. In 1914, influenced by Progressive-Era developments in state libraries, Putnam created the Legislative Reference, now the Congressional Research Service, to serve the specific reference needs of the Congress. In recognition of the Library's growing contribution to the national culture, Congress created the Library of Congress Trust Fund Board in 1925, providing a mechanism for the receipt of private money gifts. Finally, as he was leaving office, Putnam bequeathed to the Library its second building. Opened in 1939 as the Annex, it is now named for President John Adams.

The Library entered a new era under the administrations of Archibald MacLeish (1939–1944), Luther Evans (1945–1953), and L. Quincy Mumford (1954–1974). As the United States became an international superpower, the Library dramatically increased its own acquisition of international documents and publications and undertook structures to assist other libraries across the country in building their international resources. Evans established a Library mission in Europe to acquire materials, inaugurated a program of blanket orders with foreign dealers around the globe, and expanded the Library's exchange program for foreign government documents. Mumford oversaw the implementation of Public Law 480, permitting the Library to use U.S.–owned foreign currency to purchase foreign publications for its own and other American library collections. In 1961 the Library established its first overseas acquisition centers in New Delhi and Cairo. Mumford also enjoyed two successes that would bear fruit under his successors: approval to build a third building, the James Madison Memorial, which opened in 1980; and establishment of the Machine Readable Cataloging (MARC) standard, which would provide a foundation for the computer catalogs and national databases of the next generation.

With the appointment of Daniel J. Boorstin as Librarian (1975–1987) the Library's focus returned to the national sphere, building stronger ties to Congress and expanding its relationship with the scholarly and business communities. Boorstin held luncheons, lectures, and concerts. He created a Council of Scholars to advise the Librarian, and he inaugurated the Center for the Book, a privately funded forum for discussion of the book's place in national culture. These initiatives were continued and expanded under Librarian James H. Billington (1987–). To increase private funding and enhance the Library's national visibility, Billington created the James Madison Council, an advisory board of business, philanthropic, and cultural leaders. He established an Education Office and began the use of technology to bring the Library out into the nation, digitizing the Library's resources and delivering them over the Internet.


The Library is an agency of Congress. Its primary funding derives from the annual Legislative Branch Appropriations Act, from which its various operations received more than $300 million for fiscal year 2002. But private funds represent an increasing share of the budget. The $60 million launch of the National Digital Library, for instance, received $15 million in Congressional support, the remaining $45 million raised from private donors. Annual gifts averaged $1 million in 1987, when the Library's Development Office was created. By 1997 they were exceeding $14 million.

The Collections and Their Acquisition

The Library's holdings stretch across every medium and historical age. More than 120 million items occupy approximately 530 miles of shelves. The collections include more than 18 million books, 2.5 million recordings, 12 million photographs, 4.5 million maps, 54 million manuscripts, a half-million motion pictures, and over 5,600 incunabula. Outside the fields of agriculture and medicine, where it defers to the national libraries in those fields, its stated mission is to build "a comprehensive record of American history and creativity" and "a universal collection of human knowledge." While its greatest strengths lie in American history, politics, and literature, it also possesses extraordinary collections in the history of science, the publications of learned societies around the world, and bibliography in virtually every subject. Two-thirds of its books are in foreign languages. Its Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Korean, and Polish collections are the largest out-side those countries, and its Arabic holdings are the largest outside of Egypt.

The Library's collections are built from a complex network of sources. More than 22,000 items arrive each day. About 10,000 are retained for the permanent collections. Gifts, an important component of the Library's growth from the beginning, remain significant. The copyright depository program is the largest single feature of the acquisitions program. The depository does not generate a national collection of record, as Library selectors are not bound to retain all copyrighted items received. Current practice retains approximately two-thirds of copyright receipts. There are over 15,000 agreements with foreign governments and research institutions, and the library also receives publications from the governments of all fifty states and from a wide range of municipal and other government units. Overseas offices acquire materials from over sixty countries for the Library and for other American libraries through the Cooperative Acquisition Program. Approval plans, blanket and standing orders with foreign vendors complete the collection.

Place in National Culture and Education

The Library has been at the center of national library culture at least since 1901, when it began distributing its catalog cards to libraries around the nation. Recent changes in cataloging practices have reduced the Library's near-complete domination of cataloging, but its role in setting national bibliographic standards remains pivotal. The Library has also played a central role in the development of standards for the presentation and exchange of digital information.

Yet, however expansive the vision of Librarians like Spofford, Putnam, MacLeish, and Mumford, the Library was the realm of researchers fortunate enough to visit its Washington home and long stood remote from the broader national culture. That situation changed dramatically in the last decades of the twentieth century. From Daniel Boorstin's creation of the Center for the Book in 1977 to his appointment of Robert Penn Warren as the nation's first poet laureate in 1986, the Library took a place at the center of national intellectual life. That role has expanded dramatically under Billington with the emergence of the Internet as a vehicle for making the Library's collections accessible to Americans in their homes and offices. Thomas, the Library's legislative information service, provides ready access to Congressional documents. The American Memory exhibit has made many of the Library's historical documents, photographs, and sound and video collections available to every citizen with computer access. America's Story is a web site designed specifically for young people, putting the Library's resources in a form even young children can enjoy. Together these resources have revolutionized the Library and its relationship with the nation.


Cole, John Y. Jefferson's Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress. Washington: Library of Congress, 1993. Also available on the Library's web site, at:

Cole, John Y., ed. The Library of Congress in Perspective: A Volume Based on the Reports of the 1976 Librarian's Task Force and Advisory Groups. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1978.

Conaway, James. America's Library: The Story of the Library of Congress, 1800–2000. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.

Goodrum, Charles A., and Helen W. Dalrymple. The Library of Congress. Boulder: Westview, 1982.

Highsmith, Carol M., and Ted Landphair. The Library of Congress: America's Memory. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1994.

Mearns, David C. The Story Up to Now: The Library of Congress, 1800–1946. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1947.

U.S. Library of Congress. Annual Report of the Librarian. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1886–.

Michael E.Stoller

See alsoLibraries .

Library of Congress

views updated May 14 2018

Library of Congress the US national library, in Washington DC. It was established in 1800, originally for the benefit of members of the US Congress, and was at first housed in the Capitol, moving to its present site in 1897.