Library of Congress
District of Columbia
In 1800, as part of an act of Congress providing for the removal of the new national government from Philadelphia to Washington, President John Adams approved an act of Congress providing $5,000 for books for the use of Congress—the beginning of the Library of Congress. A Joint Congressional Committee—the first joint committee—would furnish oversight. In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson approved a legislative compromise that made the job of Librarian of Congress a presidential appointment, giving the Library of Congress a unique relationship with the American Presidency. Jefferson named the first two Librarians of Congress, each of whom also served as the clerk of the House of Representatives.
It was also former President Jefferson, retired to Monticello, who came to the new Library’s rescue during the War of 1812. In 1814, the British burned Washington, destroying the Capitol and the small congressional library in its north wing. Congress accepted Jefferson’s offer to sell his comprehensive personal library of 6,487 books to “recommence” its own library. Jefferson’s concept of universality is the rationale for the comprehensive collecting policies of today’s Library of Congress.
Furthermore, Jefferson’s belief in the power of knowledge and the direct link between knowledge and democracy has shaped the Library’s philosophy of sharing its rich, often unique collections and services, as widely as possible.
From today’s perspective, it is obvious that the Library plays important legislative, national, and international roles. However, it was not clear during the Library’s early decades in the U.S. Capitol that it would evolve into more than a legislative institution, a role favored by the Joint Library Committee. Moreover, it was plagued by fire, space shortages, understaffing and the lack of an annual appropriation. Although it made popular literature available to the general public, the Library’s primary purpose was to serve Congress.
The situation changed dramatically after the Civil War as the country settled down, the economy expanded, and both the federal government and the city of Washington grew rapidly.
Ainsworth Rand Spofford (Librarian of Congress 1864-1897) took full advantage of an emerging cultural nationalism to persuade the Congress to view its Library as a national institution and therefore the national library.
In the spirit of Jefferson, Spofford successfully advocated a single, comprehensive collection of American publications for use by both Congress and the American people. The centralization of U.S. copyright registration and deposit at the Library of Congress in 1870 was essential for the annual growth of these collections.
Spofford’s greatest challenge was to persuade Congress to construct a much-needed separate Library building. The process began with an architectural competition in 1873 and consumed his interest and activities until the massive building opened to Congressional and public acclaim in 1897. The impressive new structure in Italian Renaissance style, the largest library in the world when it opened in 1897, was a monument to American achievement and ambition. It was named for Thomas Jefferson in 1980.
The 20th century would see that magnificent building welcome increased staff, diverse multimedia collections and a steady stream of new patrons. Most of this progress was shaped by Herbert Putnam, who was appointed Librarian of Congress in 1899, as the country entered the Progressive Era.
An experienced librarian, Putnam came to the post with a comprehensive plan for the Library of Congress as a national library. President Theodore Roosevelt agreed with Putnam’s basic premise, which the Librarian summarized in a 1901 speech to the American Library Association: the new “National Library” should “reach out” to support other libraries throughout the nation. In the early 1900s, the president agreed with Putnam’s steadily increasing requests for additional funds, and so did Congress. Moreover, in 1903 Roosevelt issued an executive order that transferred the records of the Continental Congress and the personal papers of six of the founding fathers to the Library to be “preserved and made more accessible."
In 1914, Putnam established the Legislative Reference Service (LRS) as a separate Library department. This effort was supported by Wisconsin Sen. Robert M. LaFollette Sr., who felt that Congress thus had “taken an important step in rendering the business of lawmaking more exact, economically sound and scientific.”
With President Roosevelt’s endorsement, a vote of confidence through an increased annual budget from Congress and the space provided by an attractive new annex building (today known as the John Adams Building), Putnam pursued his plan with what others described as “energetic nationalism.” The result, between 1901 and 1928, was a series of new national library services, research publications, and catalogs, cultural functions and new offices.
The Library’s symbolic role as a repository and promoter of the democratic tradition was of special appeal to Putnam’s successor, Archibald MacLeish, who served as Librarian of Congress during most of World War II. MacLeish relished the Library’s role as the custodian of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution and helped plan the shipment of the documents, along with other treasures, to Fort Knox, Kentucky, and additional sites for safekeeping during the war.
Having weathered two world wars, expanded its collections and constructed a second building, the Library of Congress approached the 1960s on firm footing. Challenges lay ahead, however, for a new global era of growth was underway. In response, the Library gradually took on a new international role. Hallmarks of the period were a continuation of post-World War II interest in international affairs (especially in relations with Soviet Union, Africa and Asia), accelerated technological change in all walks of life, and increased funding for libraries and research materials in the United States and abroad. A new national concern for civil rights was prompted in part by racial violence and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The introduction of automation into the Library’s cataloging procedures and the initial development of the Library’s overseas acquisitions and cataloging programs contributed strongly to the institution’s unprecedented rate of growth between 1954 and 1975. In those 21 years presided over by Librarian of Congress L. Quincy Mumford, the Library’s book collection increased from 10 to 17 million volumes, the staff from 1,600 to 4,500 and the annual appropriation from $9.5 million to $116 million. In collaboration with Congress and the Office of the Architect of the Capitol, in 1958 the Library initiated planning for a third major building on Capitol Hill.
Librarian Mumford was well aware of the need to “balance” the legislative and national responsibilities of the Library, both which grew dramatically during his tenure. In 1962, in response to critics who suggested that the needs of the nation’s research libraries might be better served if the Library of Congress was moved from the legislative to the executive branch of government, he strongly defended the institution’s legislative branch location. He also asserted that “the Library of Congress today performs more national library functions than any other national library in the world.”
Historian Daniel J. Boorstin was appointed Librarian of Congress in 1975 by President Gerald R. Ford. Greater public visibility for the institution was one of his primary objectives. Several of the offices he created, including the American Folklife Center, the Center for the Book and the Council of Scholars, were public-private partnerships assisted by advisory boards and private funding. In 1980, he presided over the opening of the James Madison Memorial Building. In 1984 he obtained a major appropriation for the multi-year restoration and modernization of the Jefferson and Adams Buildings.
Key activities expanding the Library's functions at all levels benefited from the leadership of Librarian of Congress James H. Billington in the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century. These included the development of a National Digital Library, the John W. Kluge Center for Scholars, and the opening of the National Audio-Visual Center on the Library's new Packard Campus in Culpeper, Virginia.
In 2016, President Barack Obama nominated librarian Carla Hayden, chief executive officer of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland, to be the 14th Librarian of Congress. The first woman and African-American to serve as Librarian, she inherited a unique, global institution, widely known for its free, non-partisan service to Congress, librarians, scholars, and the public—in the United States and around the world.
For nearly two centuries, the Library of Congress has relied first on its own expert staff, as well as on copyright depositors, book dealers, scholars, and other experts to assure that the national collections of the United States continue to enable the Library of Congress to fulfill its mission to "sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations."
Containing approximately 164 million items in virtually all formats, languages, and subjects, these collections are the single most comprehensive accumulation of human expression ever assembled. True to the Jeffersonian ideal, the collections are broad in scope, including research materials in more than 470 languages, more than 35 scripts, and many media.
The collections are constantly growing. Materials come to the Library through an acquisitions program that extends throughout the world and includes over fifteen thousand agreements with foreign governments and research institutions for the exchange of research materials; gifts; purchases; transfers from other U.S. government agencies; and copyright deposits. Each day about twenty-two thousand items arrive at the Library. Approximately ten thousand of these items will become part of the permanent collections, selected in accordance with the Library of Congress Collections Policy Statements which provide a plan for developing the collections and maintaining their existing strengths.
Because of the extraordinary size and diversity of the Library's collections, there is no one place for researchers to access them. Most (but not all) of the Library's collections are located in the three main buildings of the Library--the Thomas Jefferson Building, James Madison Building, and John Adams Building--near the U.S. Capitol. (The collections of the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled are housed elsewhere; consult their web page for more information.) Researchers coming to the Library can access materials in over 20 public reading rooms in the Jefferson, Adams, or Madison Buildings, depending on the format, subject, or language of the materials they are using. Most researchers use more than one reading room during their stay here.
The Main Reading Room in the Thomas Jefferson Building is the principal reference and book service point for the Library's general collections. If this is your first time researching at the library or researching general topics, this is the place to start.
The Thomas Jefferson Building is open to visitors Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Note: Last entry is at 4:30 p.m.
Closed: Sundays, Mondays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
A full list of Reading Room opening hours can be found here
The Library of Congress is free and open to the public with timed-entry passes. An individual can reserve up to ten timed-entry passes per day.
Library of Congress buildings are fully accessible. Please indicate any ADA related needs at least five days in advance of your visit by contacting ADA@loc.gov or (202) 707-6362.
The Library has accessible rest rooms as indicated by signs in each building. In the Madison building, the accessible rest rooms are in the blue (Northwest) and yellow (Southeast) corridors of the building.
The Library of Congress welcomes researchers to its reading rooms and research centers. Appointments are optional, but encouraged to serve you best, ensure collection material is accessible during your visit and optimize your time at the Library. Request a research appointment completing an online form. Library staff will confirm the date and time of your scheduled appointment.
More extensive details on Research and Reference Services can be found at the following link: https://loc.gov/rr/
The Library's reading rooms have differing policies regarding the photocopying of materials. Some reading rooms restrict self-service photocopying on certain categories of material, based on preservation and security policies. It is best to consult staff in the appropriate reading room for specific information on its photocopying policy. Self-service debit card-operated copiers are available to serve researchers in most reading rooms. Prices vary depending on the material to be copied and the machine to be used. To purchase a debit card for copying, a one-dollar bill may be required on some machines; value can be added to these cards with any denomination up to $22. To add value with a credit card or corporate check, researchers must visit the Duplication Services counter Monday through Friday from 9:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M.
The Library's Duplication Services can provide a wide range of reproductions of items from the Library's collections. The ability of the Library to furnish reproductions is subject to copyright law and certain other restrictions; however, every effort will be made to fulfill requests. Please provide specific citations (title, author, number of pages, and LC call number) for materials you wish copied. The Duplication Services is open 9:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M. ET Monday through Friday. Further information about products, services, and prices can be obtained by contacting: Duplication Services in John Adams Building, Room LA-128, or Phone 202-707-5640 | Fax 202-707-1771.
LOC website, last consulted on 26/11/2022.