By JOHN Y. COLE
Although the Library of Congress has unparalleled collections, there are still important items it would like to add to its collections. "Gifts to the Nation" has been established as one of the Library's Bicentennial projects to help obtain these materials. The Library will be 200 on April 24, 2000.
Through donors' gifts to the institution, the Library is acquiring historically significant items that have been identified by the institution's curators. Other gifts are providing support for endowments and for established Library programs.
Furthermore, the Library is making its own "gift to the nation." The National Digital Library Program, in cooperation with other institutions, by 2000 will offer 6 million items of important American history materials. Currently, more than 2.5 million items can be viewed at the American Memory Web site.
The James Madison Council, the Library's private sector advisory group, is playing a key role in Gifts to the Nation and in the entire Bicentennial commemoration. The curators' list of recommendations for gifts to the collections was forwarded to the council, which is helping the Library seek donations to make the gifts possible. During its meeting on April 13-14, Chairman John Kluge asked each Madison Council member to consider making a personal gift. In addition to special acquisitions items, potential gifts include endowed chairs, endowed curatorships and endowed centers for scholarship that will promote the creative use of the collections.
Thus far Madison Council members have contributed more than $7.4 million to the Gifts to the Nation project, which, in addition to acquisitions of materials, have supported exhibitions, endowed chairs and other programs. The council has also provided general support of more than $3.3 million for the Bicentennial.
One "gift to the nation" from a Madison Council member has special significance for the Bicentennial. On April 14 Dr. Billington announced a gift of $1 million from Jerry Jones, owner and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys football team, and his wife, Gene, to fund the replacement of volumes from Thomas Jefferson's library, two-thirds of which was lost in a fire in 1851. Jefferson's personal library of 6,487 volumes, acquired in 1815, is the "seed" of today's Library of Congress. Its reconstruction through replacement of the missing volumes in the same edition that Jefferson owned is a major Bicentennial project. All the found books will be featured in the exhibition "Thomas Jefferson: Genius of Liberty," which will open on April 24, 2000. As of Sept. 14, 128 books had been purchased, four had been donated to the Library and 697 titles remained to be acquired. Of the 1,012 items originally needed to complete Jefferson's library, 187 were located in the Library of Congress collections.
"We are extremely grateful to the Madison Council and its chairman, John Kluge (right), for their generous support of our institution, " said Dr. Billington during a reception honoring Mr. Kluge on April 13. In addition to its donations thus far of $7.4 million for "gifts to the nation" and $3.3 million for general Bicentennial support, the Madison Council has contributed more than $45 million to support the National Digital Library Program.
Gifts to the Library: Some Early Milestones
As the Library of Congress began to grow in national importance in the years following the Civil War, it began to attract occasional gifts from foreign governments and from individuals. In 1882 Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford set a lasting precedent when he persuaded physician Joseph M. Toner to donate his 38,000-volume personal collection to the Library. In approving the gift, which was especially rich in American history and the history of American medicine, the Joint Committee on the Library stated that it was "the first instance in the history of this government of the free gift of a large and valuable library to the nation." Sen. John Sherman, committee chairman, expressed the committee's hope that "an example so laudable may be productive of many similar literary and scientific benefactions in the future."
In the 1880s, however, the Library of Congress already was out of space in the Capitol building, and it wasn't until after the new Library building opened in 1897 that Sherman's hope could be fulfilled.
The person responsible was Librarian Herbert Putnam, who persuaded, cajoled and impressed many donors and potential donors during his 40 years (1899-1939) as head of the institution. In 1907 he received approval from the U.S. attorney general to use the words "to the United States of America, to be placed in the Library of Congress" for gifts or bequests to the Library. Historian Henry Harrisse, who died in 1910, bequeathed his personal library of maps, manuscripts and rare books to the Library. In 1912 Jacob H. Schiff donated nearly 10,000 volumes and pamphlets of Hebraica. The same year, J.P. Morgan donated to "the National Library" a complete bound set of letters and documents from the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Putnam's major achievement came in 1925. Taking advantage of significant gifts the previous year from James B. Wilbur and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, he engineered the approval by Congress of the Library of Congress Trust Fund Board. It was authorized "to accept, receive, hold and administer such gifts or bequests of personal property for the benefit of, or in connection with, the Library, its collections or its service." Putnam capitalized on that accomplishment by launching a series of initiatives that brought the Library, primarily through private contributions, its first endowed chairs and consultantships. The success of the Trust Fund Board was crucial to his vision of the nationalization of the Library's services and collections.
Finally, the distribution of Library of Congress printed catalog cards to other libraries, which Putnam began in 1901, was a precursor to today's sharing of digitized items from the Library's collections through the National Digital Library. As he explained in his 1901 annual report, Putnam simply could not ignore "the opportunity and appeal" of centralized cataloging as a national Library of Congress service. The result of providing cataloging information through the printed cards would be "prodigious savings to the libraries of the country." Moreover, the technology was available: the Library already housed a branch of the Government Printing Office. The Librarian called the new card service "the most significant of our undertakings of this first year of the new century."
His rationale in 1901 has a familiar ring a century later: "American instinct and habit revolt against multiplication of brain effort and outlay where a multiplication of results can be achieved by machinery. This appears to be a case where it may."
John Cole is co-chair of the Bicentennial Steering Committee and director of the Center for the Book.