By JOHN Y. COLE
Throughout its history, a variety of publications about the Library have been published. Some have focused on the remarkable architecture of the 1897 Jefferson Building. Others, on the incomparable collections. Still others, on its myriad missions. Some publications have even covered all of these topics.
To mark the Library's Bicentennial during its birthday month of April 2000, Yale University Press will publish America's Library: The Story of the Library of Congress, 1800-2000, by James Conaway. This well-illustrated (151 illustrations, 73 of them in color), 256-page volume is the first full narrative history of the Library of Congress since David C. Mearns's The Story Up to Now: The Library of Congress 1800-1946 (1947). It is aimed at a general audience and will cost $39.95.
The foreword is by Dr. Billington and the introduction ("One Writer's Library") is by biographer Edmund Morris. Graphic artist Lance Hidy designed the dust jacket. Although it is being published in association with the Library of Congress, the book reflects Mr. Conaway's interpretation of the institution's development, not the Library's.
Douglas W. Bryant, associate librarian of Harvard University, accurately observed in 1962: "The major functions of the Library of Congress might have been assigned to three or four separate agencies. ... An explanation of why they have been combined would call for a study of history rather than of administrative logic." Four decades later the Library of Congress is still adding and combining functions and growing. James Conaway's new book is a perceptive and lucid presentation of a complicated place.
Mr. Conaway is the author of eight books. His latest, The Smithsonian: 150 Years of Adventure, Discovery and Wonder, an illustrated history, was copublished by Smithsonian Books and Alfred A. Knopf in connection with the Smithsonian's 150th anniversary celebrations in 1996. He also has written a memoir, Memphis Afternoons; a best-selling social history, Napa: The Story of an American Eden; a book about the American West, The Kingdom in the Country; and a novel, The Big Easy. He has been a contributing editor of Civilization: The Magazine of the Library of Congress and over the years has written on a wide range of subjects for The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Harper's and many other publications.
Interpreting a Complicated Place: Some Milestones Up to 1950
The first "general interpretations" of the Library as a whole came from the pen of Ainsworth Rand Spofford, Librarian of Congress in 1864-1897. Spofford wrote about the Library as a national institution even while he was turning the Library into that very institution. In a comprehensive Office of Education survey published in 1876, he published an article, "The Library of Congress, or National Library." Two years later, his more comprehensive article in the journal International Review ("The Government Library in Washington") concluded with a plea to Congress to provide funds to move the collections from the U.S. Capitol to a separate building to "render this priceless repository of knowledge in the widest degree useful to the country." In 1897 his dream came true with the opening of the Thomas Jefferson Building.
In 1904 a hefty 535-page volume, History of the Library of Congress, Volume I, 1800-1864, was published by the Government Printing Office and written by Library staffer William Dawson Johnston. The book stands by itself, even though Johnston meant it to be the first in a three-volume series of "contributions to American library history." Johnston's preliminary notes and chapters for the second but never-completed volume are in his personal papers in the Manuscript Division. The published volume, drawing directly on the Library's archives and conversations with Spofford (who served as Chief Assistant Librarian until his death in 1908), is unsurpassed for the Library's prehistory (before it was formally established in 1800) and the period 1800-1864. It is itself an important documentary source, for Johnston has reprinted the texts of key congressional reports and of other early documents that have since disappeared.
Another Library staffer who tackled the institution's history was Frederick W. Ashley, chief assistant librarian in 1927-1936. His unpublished, mostly typewritten work of more than 1,600 pages, located in his papers in the Manuscript Division, covers the history of the institution from 1897 to 1939. In 1929 Ashley produced a perceptive essay, "Three Eras in the Library of Congress," which David Mearns thought (in 1946) to be "probably the most brilliant summary of Library of Congress history that has appeared."
Fortress of Freedom: The Story of the Library of Congress, published in 1942 by J.B. Lippincott, was written by Lucy Salamanca, a professional writer who was serving as head of the Inquiry and General Research Section of the Library's Legislative Reference Division. In his enthusiastic foreword, Archibald MacLeish, Librarian of Congress in 1939-1944, calls the book "the first complete history of the Library of Congress." He adds: "No piecemeal account of the units which compose the Library of Congress can convey a truthful impression of the great department of government which has for its end and aim the active and useful possession, on behalf of the people of the United States and in their interest, of the record of their past and of the works of intellect and art out of which their future may be created."
Librarian of Congress Luther H. Evans (1945-1953) asked David C. Mearns, the director of the Library's Reference Department, to write the Library's story on relative short notice and in a short period of time in order "to explain the status of the Library" and to "tell how it got this way." The result, The Story Up to Now, The Library of Congress 1800-1946, is a concise but sweeping review of the institution's history that emphasizes its national roots and the development of its national role. First published in the Library's 1946 Annual Report, it was published separately in 1947. Through the writer's enthusiasm, wit and lucid style, The Story Up to Now introduced many people, including many historians, to the Library.
A handsome illustrated catalog of an exhibition about the Library's history was published in 1950 as part of the institution's sesquicentennial celebration (see Information Bulletin, April 1999). A narrative counterpart to the catalog, "The Library of Congress: A Sesquicentenary Review," was published in the July and October 1950 issues of Library Quarterly. The author, Deputy Chief Assistant Librarian Dan Lacy, cogently focused on the history of the development of the collections in the first article and on their organization and use in the second.
At the conclusion of his history, he wanted to predict an untroubled outlook for the Library but found that world events made that impossible. He wrote: "And so the Library comes to the end of a sesquicentennium. It should be a time to look back with satisfaction and ahead with comfortable assurance. Now it cannot be, for the renewed outbreak of war, this time in Korea, gives greater emphasis to all the responsibilities which the Library of Congress shares with its fellows. The path across the unknown years ahead has taken another turn toward the edge of darkness, and the tasks of American libraries in the preservation of the world of the free mind will take all their strength together."
No such words will conclude the new Bicentennial publications.
Mr. Cole is cochair of the Library's Bicentennial Steering Committee and director of the Center for the Book.