Tag Archives: History

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.

LOC 2 What You Can Find There

The original purpose of the Library of Congress was to provide unbiased research to members of Congress. Each year the library receives thousands of requests from Congress for information on a variety of subjects. The research staff are experts in various fields. The Library of Congress also researches foreign law for Congress.

If you are planning to visit the Library of Congress, you need to obtain a free reservation ahead of time if you want to enter the building. If you will have time to do some research, you can register for a “Reader Identification Card” which will allow you to access the reading room. The stacks are closed, which means you will have to ask a librarian to retrieve the item you want to look at, then they will bring it to you. Browsing is not allowed. The Library of Congress does not check out items to people, so you will need to do your research while you are in the building.

But it’s not all serious research. Remember the recent video of rapper Lizzo playing a crystal flute? That flute was part of a large collection of flutes held by the Library of Congress. Aside from flutes, the library holds many other collections. They have 124,000 telephone books, (remember those?) and over 5.6 million maps. You can also find a vellum Gutenberg Bible, a 1763 children’s Bible, a cuneiform tablet from 2040 BC and one of the oldest printed items in the world, a Buddhist scripture dating to 770 AD.

If you can’t make it to Washington, D.C, the Library of Congress website also contains a lot of interesting information. If you need a copyright-free image for a project, you can select from a large number of fair use images. You can also view digitized versions of original documents like a 1904 autobiography of  prohibitionist Carry A. Nation or George Washington’s war correspondence. The library also houses oral histories of WWII veterans as well as recordings of slave narratives from the 1930s Federal Writer’s Project.

The Library of Congress provides braille and audio books for the blind. They distribute them to state and regional libraries to pass along to their patrons free of charge. Some of their braille items include books on how to play the piano, the clarinet, and even musical scores. You can even order a braille magazine about chess or cats.

Each day about 15,000 items arrive at the library. Librarians add around 10,000 items every day. The library has an agreement with US book dealers to acquire newly published books. Many are also sent from other countries. The library houses over 173 million items in 470 different languages. The copyright office is a branch of the Library of Congress, and the largest number of acquisitions are copyright documents.

I have heard that each year over one million books are published in English. Even though the Library of Congress has much more space than the Gering Library, they can’t possibly keep all of them.

When the Library of Congress has excess books, they make them available to other libraries through their surplus book program. When I was in Washington, D.C. I was able to go to the basement of the Madison Building and select books from a very large, very unorganized room full of bookshelves. I found two boxes of books for the Gering Public Library- you will be able to identify them because they will be marked “Library of Congress.” Be on the lookout, I found several large print westerns. Representative Adrian Smith’s office footed the shipping bill for our free books, so thank him when you see him! 

LOC 3 How It Is Organized

Throughout his life, Thomas Jefferson owned between 9,000 and 10,000 books. By contrast, the Gering library contains around 32,000 books. Jefferson sold his personal library to replace the destroyed original Library of Congress when the British burned it during the War of 1812. This was not his first library though. In 1770, his original library of 400 books was destroyed in a fire. These were books he inherited from his father and others he acquired when he was in college. Jefferson began rebuilding his library immediately, adding 2000 books he bought while in France and nearly 700 he had inherited from a friend. By 1814 he had around 6,500 books which he sold to rebuild the Library of Congress. When Jefferson died in 1826 he owned around 1600 books. Most of these were sold to pay his debtors.

How did Jefferson keep track of all these books? The Dewey Decimal system wasn’t used until 1873.

The philosopher Francis Bacon determined there were three kinds of knowledge; Memory, Reason and Imagination. Jefferson modified this theory into Memory, Philosophy and Fine Arts. He used these three categories to organize his books. From the three main categories, he further divided them into 44 chapters. From there the books were organized chronologically or analytically according to Jefferson’s inclination.

Under the Memory section Jefferson included books on history, agriculture, chemistry, medicine, zoology, and what he called “Occupations of Man. Technical Arts.”

Under Philosophy Jefferson listed ethics, law, politics, mathematics, mechanics, astronomy and geography. This is also where he placed his copy of the Qur’an and his Hebrew Bible.

Under Fine Arts Jefferson included books on architecture, gardening, painting, sculpture, music, poetry, fiction, and what he called criticism.

He sent a carefully organized list with the books to Washington. When the librarian put them on the shelf, he retained the categories and chapters, but alphabetized the titles within each chapter. Jefferson was not impressed, but he eventually agreed that others would be able to use the library more easily if it was organized alphabetically.

In 1897 Charles Martel set out to better organize the now one million books in the library. By 1939 the Library of Congress Classification system was mostly complete. Many colleges and universities use “LC,” as they call it, to organize their libraries. However, most public libraries use the Dewey Decimal System.

Rather than three main categories, the Library of Congress now separates books into 21 categories, using the alphabet to distinguish each category. An additional letter is assigned for sub-categories.  For example, Agriculture is now filed under S. Horticulture is SB, animal husbandry is SF and hunting is SK. From there, Martel used numbers to further separate out each subject. Continuing with hunting, you would find fox hunting under SK 284-287 and wildlife management books under SK 351-579.

Fiction is separated out by the author’s origin, so Literature is P but English literature is PR and American literature is found under PS. 

The Library of Congress helpfully assigns their own subjects to most books so that libraries don’t have to start from scratch when they add a new book to the collection. If you look at the back of the title page in any book, you will likely find something like this: “1. Pickett, Joe (fictitious character)- Fiction. 2. Game wardens- Fiction. 3. Wyoming- Fiction. Then after that you will see something like PS3552.O87658T76.” The first part are the subjects the Library of Congress assigned, which many libraries use. The long number is where the book would be shelved. PS being American Fiction. As you can see, a lot goes into deciding where something would go on the shelf using Library of Congress classification, but I think once you learn the system it would make perfect sense.