The international collections of the Library of Congress
started with the arrival of the Thomas Jefferson library in 1815.
Jefferson's 6,487 volumes, sold to Congress for $23,950, expanded
the scope of the Library far beyond the bounds of a legislative
resource. Jefferson was a man of encyclopedic interests, and his
library included works on architecture, the arts, science, literature,
and geography. It contained books in French, Spanish, German, Latin,
Greek, and one three-volume statistical work in Russian. Jefferson
believed that the American legislature needed ideas and information
on all subjects and in many languages in order to govern a democracy.
His belief, reflected in the nature of his library, transformed
the Library of Congress.
Today the Library's international
collections are unparalleled in many respects. Its collections are
comprehensive in scope and include research materials in more than
450 languages and in many media. Approximately two-thirds of the
Library's books are in languages other than English. Its Chinese,
Russian, Japanese, Korean, and Polish collections are the largest
outside of those countries, and the Arabic collections are the largest
outside of Egypt. Its collection of Luso-Hispanic materials is the
largest in the world. These world culture collections total in the
millions, and the variety of materials is astounding and includes
scrolls, maps, books, documents, prints, photographs, posters, periodicals,
film and recorded sound.
Like its sister exhibition, American
Treasures, this installation will be an ongoing exhibition
and will feature the Library's most treasured materials. However,
to provide some unity to the exploration of many and varied cultures,
this exhibition will have changing themes, each lasting a year or
The Library of Congress international
gallery starts with "Beginnings," an exploration of how world cultures
have dealt with the creation of the universe and explained the heavens
and the earth. Future thematic installations will focus on the history
of the communication of the written word, encounters among cultures,
and ceremonies and celebrations. "Beginnings" will run
through March 15, 2003. World Treasures will reopen with a new theme
"Beginnings" is an apt first presentation
not only because it marks the initiation of an ongoing exhibition
devoted to the Library's rich international collections. "Beginnings"
also draws on a rich trove in the Library's world collections that
relate to the origins of civilizations and cultures. It explores,
from the viewpoint of more than fifty cultures, accounts and depictions
of the creation or the beginning of the universe; explanations of
the earth and the heavens; fundamental or key myths and stories
on the founding of civilizations, societies, and cities; and examples
of early writing and printing.
Viewed as a whole, the exhibition
may seem as complex and diverse as the world cultures that are represented.
Yet underlying all sections of this exhibition are three key questions:
Where does it--the universe, the cosmos-all come from?
How can we explain and order the universe and cope with it?
How do we record the experience?
Cultures across the globe and over
time have asked these same fundamental questions. This initial installation
presents the extraordinary record of answers to these questions
as they are reflected in the collections of the Library of Congress.
"Beginnings" closes with a section
that features examples of early writing, printing, and sound recording.
The ability to record the past by means of oral traditions, writing,
printing, and more recently, sound and film recordings has been
crucial for the development of world cultures. In images, stories,
songs, and written words, peoples across the globe have recorded
their individual experience and communal histories and have passed
down their laws, history, science, epics and literature. Guardians
of this collective human memory have emerged in families, villages,
and nations to ensure that the present would never be entirely divorced
from the past. Like other libraries going back to ancient times,
the Library of Congress is one such guardian, collecting materials
from around the world that demonstrate the rich diversity of an
increasingly global culture.
The International Collections of the Library of Congress
Over the its 200-year history, the
Library of Congress has been transformed from a library originally
established by the American national legislature for its own use
into a broad-based and comprehensive international collection. This
focus is especially appropriate for the national library of a country
where most of the citizens trace their roots to one of the many
cultures represented in the Library's collections.
As the principal library of the federal
government, from its founding the Library was the recipient of documents
and other publications obtained through official exchanges with
other countries. After the Library moved from the Capitol into its
own building in 1897, it began systematically to acquire materials
from and about other cultures. U.S. diplomats abroad were asked
to send materials to the Library, and the Library entered into exchange
agreements with overseas governments and libraries.
In the early 1900s, the Library acquired
significant foreign collections by purchase and gift. Among these
was a 4,000-volume library of Indica, an 80,000-volume library of
Russian literature, and a 10,000-volume collection of Hebraica.
The close involvement of the Library of Congress with the Hispanic
world began in 1927, when the Library received donated funds to
establish an endowment for the purchase of books relating to Spanish,
Portuguese, and South American arts, crafts, literature, and history.
The next year, it received a donation to create a chair of Spanish
and Portuguese literature, providing a precedent for similar endowments
for other languages and literatures. The Library acquired significant
collections of Chinese and Japanese books, and in 1928, established
a division of Chinese literature.
World War II stimulated the development
of the Library's collections about other countries and cultures.
As the major U.S. government library, the Library of Congress also
received large quantities of foreign materials collected by the
U.S. military and from other federal agencies.
Beginning in the late 1950s, the
Library began to benefit from increased federal funding for education,
libraries, and research. Most dramatic was the growth of the foreign
acquisitions program. A law passed in 1965 gave the Library funds
for acquiring, insofar as possible, materials currently published
throughout the world that were of value to scholarship. By 1971,
the Library of Congress had thirteen overseas offices, and its acquisitions
program had expanded around the world in dramatic fashion.
James H. Billington, the current
Librarian--a historian of Russia and the former Soviet Union and
a scholar with deep interest in international affairs--has consistently
emphasized the importance of maintaining and strengthening the Library
as an international institution. He has established exchange programs
that take Library staff to other countries and bring foreign scholars
to work in the Library's collections. Within the Thomas Jefferson
Building, the Library houses reading rooms for the European, Asian,
Hispanic, and African and Middle Eastern divisions, each staffed
with specialists trained in the languages and cultures of those
Alone among the world's great libraries,
the Library of Congress still attempts to be a universal library,
collecting materials of research value in almost all languages and
media. Entering its third century, it still is guided by Thomas
Jefferson's belief that democracy depends on knowledge-and that
all topics are of interest to the national legislature and to the
A film series will accompany this
exhibition. All films are screened in the Mary Pickford Theater
in the James Madison Building. Call (202) 707-5677 for more information
or check www.loc.gov/pickford
for a schedule. An audio tour produced by Soundtrack will be available
at the entrance to the exhibition.