The Library of Congress was established by an act of Congress in 1800 when President John Adams signed a bill providing for the transfer of the seat of government from Philadelphia to the new capital city of Washington. The legislation described a reference library for Congress only, containing "such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress - and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein…"
Established with $5,000 appropriated by the legislation, the original library was housed in the new Capitol until August 1814, when invading British troops set fire to the Capitol Building, burning and pillaging the contents of the small library.
Within a month, retired President Thomas Jefferson offered his personal library as a replacement. Jefferson had spent 50 years accumulating books, "putting by everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable in every science"; his library was considered to be one of the finest in the United States. In offering his collection to Congress, Jefferson anticipated controversy over the nature of his collection, which included books in foreign languages and volumes of philosophy, science, literature, and other topics not normally viewed as part of a legislative library. He wrote, "I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer."
In January 1815, Congress accepted Jefferson's offer, appropriating $23,950 for his 6,487 books, and the foundation was laid for a great national library. The Jeffersonian concept of universality, the belief that all subjects are important to the library of the American legislature, is the philosophy and rationale behind the comprehensive collecting policies of today's Library of Congress.
Ainsworth Rand Spofford, Librarian of Congress from 1864 to 1897, applied Jefferson's philosophy on a grand scale and built the Library into a national institution. Spofford was responsible for the copyright law of 1870, which required all copyright applicants to send to the Library two copies of their work. This resulted in a flood of books, pamphlets, maps, music, prints, and photographs. Facing a shortage of shelf space at the Capitol, Spofford convinced Congress of the need for a new building, and in 1873 Congress authorized a competition to design plans for the new Library.
In 1886, after many proposals and much controversy, Congress authorized construction of a new Library building in the style of the Italian Renaissance in accordance with a design prepared by Washington architects John L. Smithmeyer and Paul J. Pelz.
The Congressional authorization was successful because of the hard work of two key Senators: Daniel W. Voorhees (Indiana), who served as chairman of the Joint Committee from 1879 to 1881, and Justin S. Morrill (Vermont), chairman of Senate Committee on Buildings and Grounds.
In 1888, General Thomas Lincoln Casey, chief of the Army Corps of Engineers, was placed in charge of construction. His chief assistant was Bernard R. Green, who was intimately involved with the building until his death in 1914. Beginning in 1892, a new architect, Edward Pearce Casey, the son of General Casey, began to supervise the interior work, including sculptural and painted decoration by more than 50 American artists.
When the Library of Congress building opened its doors to the public on November 1, 1897, it was hailed as a glorious national monument and "the largest, the costliest, and the safest" library building in the world.
Today's Library of Congress is an unparalleled world resource. The collection of more than 158 million items includes more than 36 million cataloged books and other print materials in 460 languages; more than 69 million manuscripts; the largest rare book collection in North America; and the world's largest collection of legal materials, films, maps, sheet music and sound recordings.
Joint Committee on the Library
The Joint Committee on the Library (the oldest continuing Joint Committee of the U.S. Congress) was created on April 24, 1800, when President John Adams signed the bill establishing the federal government in Washington and creating the Library of Congress. The act appropriated $5,000 for "the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress" after it moved to the new capital city of Washington. The Library's appropriation for fiscal year 1811 officially made the Joint Committee on the Library a standing committee. From the 95th Congress forward, the Joint Committee on the Library has been composed of the chairman (or designee) and four members each from the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration and the Committee on House Administration. The chairmanship and vice chairmanship alternate between the House and Senate every Congress.
The Librarian of Congress
James Hadley Billington was nominated in April 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and was confirmed by the Senate to be the 13th Librarian of Congress. He took the oath of office in the Library's Great Hall on September 14, 1987. For information on past Librarians of Congress, visit here.
More Information on the History of the Library of Congress
- Webcast: A History of the Library of Congress
- Jefferson's Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress
- On These Walls: Inscriptions and Quotations in the Buildings of the Library of Congress
- Library of Congress Bicentennial (archival site from year 2000)