Library of Congress (LOC)

Thomas Jefferson’s contributions

In 1783, James Madison suggested the idea of developing a congressional library at the new capital Washington City. Before that, the capital was located in Philadelphia and New York City. Congress was able to access libraries in these cities. The new location at Washington, D.C. did not have access to an existing college or any other library. In 1800 President John Adams approved $5000 for purchase of books. The original collection consisted of 740 books and three maps. A wing of the capitol building housed the library.

As president, Thomas Jefferson appointed the first Librarian of Congress. He chose his campaign manager as the first librarian. To date there have only been 15 Librarians of Congress. The current Librarian of Congress is Carla Hayden. Of the 15 only a handful have had any previous library experience.

During the war of 1812, the British burned the collection, destroying nearly everything. By then it consisted of 3,000 items. It was still housed in the capitol. Thomas Jefferson then offered to sell his extensive library to the United States to replenish their collection. 

Jefferson was a reader and a scholar. His collection of books was not meant to impress visitors, but to be used and studied. They were not only about government, but history, architecture, farming, and new technology including hot air balloons and submarines. 

At the time, Representative Daniel Webster objected to the secular books in the collection. Nevertheless, Congress voted to purchase Jefferson’s entire library of over 6,000 books for $23,950. This price was calculated by the measurements of the books. Jefferson shipped them to Washington in ten wagons. After this, he is said to have written, “I cannot live without books,” to a friend. Jefferson started from scratch and continued to build his personal library until his death in 1826.

Among the books Jefferson donated were “The Art of Playing on the Violin” by Francesco Geminiani, “The History of Philosophy” by Thomas Stanley and “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” through which Jefferson argued against British rule of Americans at the first Continental Congress. 

In 1851 the library caught fire again. This time the fire destroyed about ⅓ of the collection, or 35,000 books. In recent years, librarians have identified the surviving books from Jefferson’s original collection and created a display. They searched world-wide to locate duplicate copies of books that burned in 1851 and added them to the display, marking them so visitors can identify the original books as well as the replacements.

The building that we think of as the Library of Congress is the Jefferson Building. The Jefferson Building, completed in 1897, is filled with ceiling paintings, grand staircases and marble. As they ran out of space, the Library of Congress grew to include the Adams Building, constructed in the 1930s and the Madison Building, constructed in the 1980s. In addition to these three buildings, a campus in Culpepper, VA houses many materials. 

As I researched the Library of Congress for this article, I learned a lot of interesting things. Look for more about our country’s largest library in my future columns. If you can’t wait, Gering Public Library has a DVD, “The re­al ­na­tion­al trea­sure: an in­sid­e look at the Li­brary of Congress” and we have a new book about the history of the Library of Congress coming to our shelves soon.

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