In 1800 President John Adams approved legislation to appropriate $5,000 to purchase “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress,” thus establishing what would eventually become the largest library in the world – The Library of Congress.
The first books, ordered from London, arrived in 1801 and were stored in the U.S. Capitol Building, the library’s first home. The first library catalog, dated April 1802, listed 964 volumes and nine maps. Twelve years later, the British army invaded the city of Washington and burned the Capitol, including the then 3,000-volume Library of Congress. Former President Thomas Jefferson, who advocated the expansion of the library during his two terms in office, responded to the loss by selling his personal library, the largest and finest in the country at that time, to Congress to “recommence” the library. The purchase of Jefferson’s 6,487 volumes was approved in the next year, and a professional librarian was hired to replace the House clerks in the administration of the library.
In 1851, a second major fire at the library destroyed about two-thirds of its 55,000 volumes, including two-thirds of the Thomas Jefferson library. Congress responded quickly and generously to the disaster, and within a few years a majority of the lost books were replaced. After the Civil War, the collection was greatly expanded, and by the 20th century the Library of Congress had become the de facto national library of the United States and the largest library in the world.
Currently the Library’s collections include more than 158 million items on approximately 838 miles of bookshelves. The collections include more than 36 million books and other print materials, 3.5 million recordings, 13.7 million photographs, 5.5 million maps, 6.7 million pieces of sheet music and 69 million manuscripts. And the Library continues to grow. It receives some 15,000 items each working day and adds approximately 12,000 items to the collections daily. And approximately half of the Library’s book and serial collections are in languages other than English. The collections contain materials in some 470 languages.
The collections are housed in three enormous buildings in D.C. – the main building, the Thomas Jefferson Building, as well as the John Adams Building and the James Madison Memorial Building. There is also a fourth building in Culpeper, Virginia. The fourth building, the Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation (MAP), is the Library of Congress’s newest building, opened in 2007. It was constructed out of a former Federal Reserve storage center and Cold War bunker. Although it’s only 71 miles away, I didn’t ride my bike to Culpeper to see the fourth building.
The Thomas Jefferson Building is located between Independence Avenue and East Capitol Street on First Street in Southeast D.C. (MAP). It first opened in 1897 as the main building of the Library and is the oldest of the three buildings. Known originally as the Library of Congress Building or Main Building, it took its present name on June 13, 1980. The Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Auditorium, which opened in 1933, has been home to more than 2,000 concerts, primarily of classical chamber music, but occasionally also of jazz, folk music, and special presentations. Some performances make use of the Library’s extensive collection of musical instruments and manuscripts. Most of the performances are free and open to the public.
The James Madison Memorial Building (see photo below, second row, left) is located between First and Second Streets SE on Independence Avenue in D.C. (MAP). The Madison Building is home to the Mary Pickford Theater, the “motion picture and television reading room” of the Library of Congress. The theater hosts regular free screenings of classic and contemporary movies and television shows. The Madison building also houses the Law Library of Congress and the United States Copyright Office. The Madison building is the third largest public building in the D.C. metropolitan area, behind the Pentagon and the building that houses my office.
The John Adams Building (see photo below, second row, right) is located between Independence Avenue and East Capitol Street on 2nd Street in Southeast D.C. (MAP), the block adjacent to the Jefferson Building. The building was originally built simply as an annex to the Jefferson Building. It opened its doors to the public on January 3, 1939. The Adams Building contains 180 miles of shelving (compared to 104 miles in the Jefferson Building) and can hold ten million volumes. There are 12 tiers of stacks, extending from the cellar to the fourth floor. Each tier provides about 13 acres of shelf space.
The Library’s primary mission is researching inquiries made by members of Congress through the Congressional Research Service. Although it is open to the public, only Library employees, Members of Congress, Supreme Court justices and other high-ranking government officials may check out books.