I have had two exciting trips to D.C. to visit the Library of Congress, the first in February and the second last week, in May. A friend of mine is a docent there and she agreed to lead two sets of my friends on a tour. Both trips were so special. I am writing this blog because I believe that the Library of Congress may be the single most important public building in the U.S. I am going to share some history about this building to make this point. Most of the information that follows comes from the website for the LOC, and occasionally I will insert my thoughts or those of my docent friend.
The Library of Congress was established by an act of Congress in 1800, and was described as a “reference library for Congress only.” The initial appropriation of $5000 established the library and it was housed in the new Capitol from 1800 to 1814. In August 1814, invading British troops set fire to the Capitol and burned or pillaged the contents of the library.
After the fire and loss of the library, President Thomas Jefferson offered his personal library as a replacement. He had spent 50 years accumulating books, “putting by everything which related to America,” and his collection was considered to be one of the finest in the U.S. In January 1815, Congress appropriated $23,950 for Jefferson’s 6,487 books. Our docent told us that Jefferson suffered depression for a period of time after his collection went to the library, because his accumulation of books was so very important to him.
The Library of Congress had difficult times in the 1850s. On Christmas Eve, 1851, a fire destroyed two-thirds of its 55,000 volumes, including two-thirds of Jefferson’s library. When the restoration of the Library room in the Capitol building was done, fireproof materials were used throughout and it reopened in 1853.
In 1886, after many proposals and much controversy, Congress authorized the construction of a new library building, and its doors were opened to the public on November 1, 1897. The construction of the new Library was executed entirely by American labor and American artists. It became a showcase of American skill and talent. It is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world with more than 160 million items, including books and other print material, recordings, photographs, maps, sheet music and manuscripts. Staff receives 15,000 items each working day and adds approximately 12,000 items to the collections daily. LOC is the home of the U.S. Copyright Office, and many of the collections are received through that registration process. Contrary to what I expected there, a visitor does not see books and more books. They are not housed within public view and access is restricted to official passes. However, it is possible to get passes, or to have books sent to your local library from the LOC, with the exception of rare books. Enjoy my images of the spectacular interior of the Jefferson Building. Notice the marble, the mosaics, the statues, the moldings. Everything in the building has meaning. Then put a trip to the Library of Congress on your bucket list.