World Treasures of the Library of Congress - Beginnings

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 more.

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 Fall, 2004.


"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 areas.

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 American people.

Exhibition Programming

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 for a schedule. An audio tour produced by Soundtrack will be available at the entrance to the exhibition.

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