By JOHN Y. COLE
A year from now, April 24, 2000, the Library of Congress will mark its Bicentennial as the nation's oldest federal cultural institution. The Library has developed an 18-month program of Bicentennial activities aimed at increasing the Library's national visibility and inspiring creativity in the years ahead "by stimulating greater use of the Library of Congress and libraries everywhere." The program is funded principally by the Madison Council, the Library's private-sector support group.
As one of its Bicentennial gifts to the nation, the Library, in collaboration with other institutions, will make available 5 million items on its widely acclaimed Web site (www.loc.gov), which handles more than 3 million transactions every working day. These electronic items, to be found in the American Memory collections, fulfill one of the principal goals of the Bicentennial: to make the Library's collections as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.
The Local Legacies program is involving Americans across the country in documenting their unique local traditions for inclusion in the collections of the Library's American Folklife Center. A selection of their documentation will join the largest folklife archives in the country.
A commemorative stamp and coins will be issued on April 24, 2000, by the Postal Service and U.S. Mint. Libraries are being asked to hold second-day cancellation events for the stamp and invite their patrons to celebrate the 200th birthday of the national library.
Thomas Jefferson's original library — the seed of the Library of Congress present-day collections — will be reconstituted through private donations.
And publications, exhibitions and symposia will illuminate the rare and unique materials that the Library has held in trust for the nation for nearly two centuries.
Details of the Bicentennial program will be highlighted each month in the LC Information Bulletin. Information is also available on the Bicentennial home page at www.loc.gov/bicentennial.
With the forthcoming commemoration in mind, the Library's only other celebration of a similar historical milestone — its sesquicentennial in 1950 — is worth revisiting. The Library of Congress was a much smaller institution then. Yet, the accomplishments of the 1950 commemoration helped inspire the more comprehensive Bicentennial program that is now unfolding at the Library and across the nation.
The Librarian of Congress in 1950 was Luther H. Evans, a forthright Texan appointed by President Harry Truman in 1945. Evans believed that the Library should expand its national role, and he unabashedly used the sesquicentennial for this purpose. In the endeavor, he was enthusiastically helped by chief assistant librarian Verner W. Clapp; assistant librarian David C. Mearns; exhibits officer Herbert J. Sanborn; and information officer Milton J. Plumb Jr. As the Library's historian, Mearns was involved with the sesquicentennial at every stage; he also chronicled it throughout the year in the pages of the Library of Congress Information Bulletin and in the Library's 1950 annual report.
In 1950 the institution occupied two buildings, today's Jefferson and Adams buildings, and had a staff of approximately 1,500 (compared with today's three buildings and full-time staff of 4,076). The collections numbered approximately 30 million (today: 115 million) and the annual appropriation was $8 million (today: $363.6 million). Microfilming was the exciting new technology that had captured everyone's imagination, and the expansion of the Library's microfilming program in 1950 was heralded in the annual report as the outstanding achievement of the year.
The 1949 Intermission Broadcast Radio Series
As a prelude to the sesquicentennial, from Oct. 7 through Dec. 18, 1949, Evans, Clapp and Mearns discussed the Library's history in a series of 11 broadcasts on WQQW-FM radio during the 15-minute intermission period in the Library's Coolidge Auditorium chamber music concert series (see LC Information Bulletin, Jan. 9, 1950, page 11).
The Great Hall Reception
The sesquicentennial was formally launched on the Library's 150th birthday, with a reception in the Great Hall on April 24, 1950. Approximately 2,600 guests attended the gathering, which was sponsored and financed by the Library's Welfare and Recreation Association. The association received substantial help from the Library's Cooking Club. "For the benefit of successors who fifty years hence will be confronted with a similar gastronomical situation," the Library's 1950 annual report presented the "consumption" statistics, which included 500 dozen rolls, 33 Vienna loaves, 60 pounds of ham, 56 pounds of turkey, 2,200 meatballs, 2,500 cheese straws, 25 pounds of banana chips and 12,000 cookies.
People began arriving at 4 p.m. and did not leave until well after 7. Librarian Evans was a cordial and animated presence in the 12-person receiving line. In his description of the reception in the May 1, 1950, issue of the Information Bulletin, assistant librarian Mearns, in typical tongue-in-cheek fashion, noted that "fault-finders" would probably say that Evans's behavior "was deficient in that aloofness of manner and rudeness of bearing and general superciliousness which a grateful people have a right to expect of their public servants." For a brief period, the 89-year old Librarian of Congress Emeritus Herbert Putnam joined the receiving line.
Three sesquicentennial exhibitions were opened on April 24 in conjunction with the reception. The principal exhibit, which illustrated the first 150 years of the Library's history, was on the Jefferson Building's ground floor.
The eighth annual National Exhibition of Prints opened on the first floor. A competitive show supported by the Pennell Fund, the exhibition displayed 199 prints by 184 artists. As in past years, a number of the works were purchased for the Library's collections.
The third exhibition commemorated the sesquicentennial of the transfer of the nation's capital to the District of Columbia. It was part of a series of exhibitions initiated by Evans that marked significant anniversaries of American states or territories.
Newspaper Coverage of the Opening Events
The (Washington) Sunday Star on April 23 carried a well-illustrated story, "Sesquicentennial Exhibitions," in its magazine section. Editorials congratulating the Library and attesting to the institution's value appeared in The Washington Post (April 24) and The New York Times (April 24). The sesquicentennial reception was described in articles on April 25 in The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun and The Evening Star.
Library of Congress Publications
President Truman's sesquicentennial greeting is the preface to the handsome, 38-page illustrated catalog of the exhibit commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Library's establishment. Truman expresses confidence "that the spirit of Thomas Jefferson joins me in congratulating the American people upon their Library's sesquicentennial." Mearns contributed a brief introduction to the publication, which features various Library of Congress seals on its cover. The catalog for the exhibition marking the sesquicentennial of the District of Columbia, still in press when the exhibit opened, is today a collector's item.
The November issue of the Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions was devoted to a series of essays on the Library's resources for the study of Americana from the period of discovery and settlement to the close of the year 1800.
Gifts to the Nation
On April 24, members of the family of Gen. Henry Martyn Robert presented to the Library documents associated with the beginnings of the American parliamentary classic Robert's Rules of Order. A rare Chinese work, Tu Hsiu Ts'ung Chu, was presented by a former Chinese ambassador to the United States. Librarian and collector J. Christian Bay also presented the Library with a rare manuscript, dated 1594.
In April 1950, the Music Division, with support from the Whittall Foundation, presented two notable concerts in honor of the Library's sesquicentennial. Rudolf Serkin presented a piano recital on April 14. On April 27, Clifford Curzon and the Budapest String Quartet presented a program of piano quintets.
A People's Celebration
On April 26, Librarian Evans and several colleagues journeyed to Baltimore for ceremonies at the Enoch Pratt Free Library and a luncheon at the Emerson Hotel honoring the Library of Congress. Representative librarians, scholars and citizens from throughout Maryland attended the luncheon, which was sponsored by the Advertising Club of Baltimore. The luncheon speeches were broadcast live on radio and later rebroadcast on stations throughout the Baltimore-Washington area.
The special, eight-page, April 26, 1950, issue of the Advertising Club's newsletter Copy focused on biographical descriptions, with pictures, of "Who's Who" in the Library of Congress.
Reenactment of Mr. Lincoln's Assassination
The third annual meeting of the National Society of Autograph Collectors was held at the Library on May 1 and 2, 1950, "in honor of the Library's birthday." Lectures, panel discussions and an exhibition were part of the occasion. But the highlight was a reenactment, in the Coolidge Auditorium, of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. According to the detailed and enthusiastic description by Lincoln expert Mearns in the Library's 1950 annual report, the performance "was more than exciting, more than moving; it was history re-created and enlightened with reality."
Publication of Jefferson's Papers
In a sesquicentennial-related event, on May 17, 1950, the Library hosted ceremonies marking the publication of the first volume of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson by Princeton University Press. The speakers included Harold Dodd, president of Princeton University; biographer and historian Douglas Southall Freeman; Gen. George C. Marshall, president of the American Red Cross; and President Truman. Truman thus became the first president to deliver an address at the Library of Congress.
Dinner at the Hotel Mayflower
About 150 people attended a climactic, celebratory dinner honoring the Library near the end of its sesquicentennial anniversary. This formal event was held at Washington's Hotel Mayflower on Dec. 12, 1950. The printed program lists attendees representing no less than 94 professional, learned and scientific societies and institutions — from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to Yale University. The master of ceremonies was Milton E. Lord, retiring president of the American Library Association. The first speaker, Robert B. Downs, director of the University of Illinois library, speaking "for the libraries of the United States," expressed appreciation for the Library's past contributions, "admiration and full endorsement of its present activities and assurance of our faith and whole-hearted support for the future." Next, Charles E. Odegaard, executive director of the American Council of Learned Societies, stated that the Library "enjoys on its sesquicentennial a devoted, learned and scientific constituency which will use whatever resources it can command to cooperate with the Library of Congress." Rep. Carl Albert (D-Okla.), a member of the Joint Committee on the Library, summarized the Library's history. Noting its national role, he also stated that "it would be easier to change the name of Arkansas than to change the name of the Library of Congress!"
Librarian Evans presented a concise overview of the accomplishments of his predecessors and described "the duties and requirements" of the institution "if it is to grow up with the world." Looking ahead, he saw a "new role in adult education" for the Library, particularly through traveling exhibitions and the use of other media, especially radio but also television — a technology then in its infancy.
The master of ceremonies then announced a final "surprise" speaker: Librarian Emeritus Putnam, who, not surprisingly, received a standing ovation when he walked to the podium. In his brief and witty remarks, he observed that it was more agreeable to "listen to a eulogy than to be the object of an elegy," and that "I am contemporary with my own posterity." He concluded with a tribute to his "valiant and persistent" predecessor as Librarian, Ainsworth Rand Spofford, and then posed for photographs with Librarian Evans.
One of the most widely read articles about the Library in its sesquicentennial year, titled "The Darndest Place in Washington" and written by Henry and Katharine Pringle, was published in the August 19, 1950, issue of the Saturday Evening Post. Professional journals also took advantage of the opportunity to feature the Library and its collections. The periodical Antiquarian Bookman dedicated its issue for April 29, 1950, "to our National Library in honor of 150 years of service." Dan M. Lacy, who became deputy chief assistant librarian on Oct. 20, 1950, made an important contribution to Library history through two articles that were published in the Library Quarterly. They described "The Development of the Collections (July 1950, pp. 157-79) and "The Organization of the Collections (Oct. 1950, pp. 235-58).
Throughout the year, the Library encouraged statements of greeting from professional organizations, libraries and individuals. Many such statements were presented at the April 24 reception, the Dec. 12 dinner and at other events. The major library and scholarly associations passed resolutions and so did many of their specialized groups, such as the American Library Association's Division of Cataloging and Classification. The division's tribute to the pioneering work in technical processing included "the many catalogers and classifiers of LC whose names we may not know but whose daily work and loyal interest have made possible LC's outstanding accomplishments."
The Information Bulletin for May 1, 1950, reproduced excerpts of messages received from prominent librarians around the country. The last one came from Donald Coney of the University of California at Berkeley: "Take heart! The first 150 years are the hardest."
Center for the Book Director John Cole is co-chair, with Chief of Staff Jo Ann Jenkins, of the Bicentennial Steering Committee. Josephus Nelson, Manuscript Division, assisted in the preparation of this article.