Jefferson's Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress

Contents - Preface - Library of Congress - Collections
Buildings - Librarians - Further Reading - Concordance


The Library of Congress in the Capitol, 1800-1897

The law creating the Library of Congress, approved on April 24, 1800, called for its books to be housed in "a suitable apartment" in the Capitol. In 1800 only the north wing of the Capitol was finished. The books brought by Congress from Philadelphia and the new books acquired for the Library were placed in the office of the Clerk of the Senate. During 1801, a temporary structure was built for the use of the House of Representatives, and the act of January 26, 1802, which established the rules and procedures "concerning the Library for the use of both Houses of Congress," provided for the move of the Library into the room in the north wing formerly occupied by the House. Here the Library remained until December 1805.

Thumbnail image of the Court of Neptune 
Fountain in front of the Jefferson Building Neptune, his son Triton, and various sea nymphs, as realized by sculptor Roland Hinton Perry, glow under artificial light in this nighttime photograph of the Court of Neptune Fountain in front of the Jefferson Building. (Photograph by Reid Baker)

The Library of Congress occupied various spaces in the Capitol building between 1806 and August 24, 1814, when the British burned the Capitol and the Library. On January 30, 1815 Thomas Jefferson's library was purchased by Congress to "recommence" its library, and a law approved on March 3, 1815, authorized the preparation of "a proper apartment" for the books. Blodget's Hotel at 7th and E Streets was serving as the temporary Capitol, and a room on its third floor became the new location of the Library of Congress. Here Jefferson's books were received and organized by Librarian of Congress George Watterston. On February 18, 1817, Library Committee chairman Eligius Fromentin, a senator from Louisiana, introduced a resolution advocating a separate building for the Library, but it failed. In late 1818, however, funds were appropriated to move the Library back into the Capitol.

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Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building A stairway in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, which was designed to demonstrate America's love of learning, science, work, and culture. (Photograph by Reid Baker)

The new quarters in the attic story of the Capitol's north wing proved inadequate. In January 1818 Charles Bulfinch became Architect of the Capitol and he soon developed plans for a spacious library room in the center of the west front of the Capitol. The new room, which measured 90 feet in length and 30 feet wide, was occupied on August 17, 1824. On December 22, 1825, a fire started by a candle left burning in the gallery was controlled before it could cause serious damage. Investigations into fireproofing the room concluded that the expense would be too great. In 1832 a separate "apartment" was established for the law collection.

On Christmas Eve, 1851, the Library of Congress suffered a disastrous fire. Approximately thirty-five thousand of its fifty-five thousand volumes were destroyed in the flames, which were caused by a faulty chimney flue. Architect of the Capitol Thomas U. Walter presented a plan, approved by Congress, to repair and enlarge the Library room using fireproof materials throughout. The elegantly restored Library room was opened on August 23, 1853. Called by the press the "largest iron room in the world," it was encircled by galleries and filled the west central front of the Capitol. A month before the opening, Pres. Franklin Pierce inspected the new Library in the company of British scientist Sir Charles Lyell, who pronounced it "the most beautiful room in the world."

Thumbnail image of drawing of the old Congressional 
Reading Room This drawing of the old Congressional Reading Room by W. Bengough appeared in Harper's Weekly on February 27, 1897. Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford is depicted at the far right, emerging from his desk area with a book for a reader. The man holding the lamp is David Hutcheson, Assistant Librarian.

In 1865, Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford obtained approval for expanding the Library by adding two new fireproof wings. The copyright law of 1870 brought two copies of all copyright items to the Library, however, and it immediately became apparent to Librarian Spofford that the Library would soon run out of space. He suggested a separate building and, in 1872 presented a plan to Congress for such a structure. In 1875, he reported to Congress that the Library had exhausted all shelf space and that "books are now, from sheer force of necessity, being piled on the floor in all directions." Unless Congress took quick action on the question of a separate building, he noted, its Librarian would soon be placed "in the unhappy predicament of presiding over the greatest chaos in America."

The Jefferson Building

The first separate Library of Congress Building, the Jefferson Building, was suggested by Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford in 1871, authorized in 1886, and completed in 1897. When its doors were opened to the public on November 1, 1897, it represented an unparalleled national achievement: its 23-carat gold-plated dome capped the "largest, costliest, and safest" library building in the world. Its elaborately decorated facade and interior, for which more than forty American painters and sculptors could surpass European libraries in grandeur and devotion to classical culture. A contemporary guidebook boasted: "America is justly proud of this gorgeous and palatial monument to its National sympathy and appreciation of Literature, Science, and Art. It has been designed and executed entirely by American art and American labor (and is) a fitting tribute for the great thoughts of generations past, present, and to be." This new national Temple of the Arts immediately met with overwhelming approval from the American public.

Known as the Library of Congress (or Main) Building until it was named for Thomas Jefferson, the Library's principal founder, in 1980, the structure was built specifically to serve as the American national library, and its architecture and decoration express and enhance that purpose. A national library for the United States was the dream and goal of Librarian Spofford; the new building was a crucial step in his achievement. It was a functional, state-of-the-art structure as well as a Temple of the Arts, using the latest technology throughout.

The early years of planning and construction were filled with controversy and delay. After two design competitions and a decade of debate about design and location, in 1886 Congress finally chose an Italian Renaissance plan submitted by Washington architects John L. Smithmeyer and Paul J. Pelz. Structurally the architects followed the basic idea proposed by Librarian Spofford: a circular, domed reading room at the Library's various departments. In the final Smithmeyer & Pelz plan, the reading room was enclosed by rectangular exterior walls, which divided the open space into four courtyards.

Thumbnail image of the Main 
Reading Room, shown before renovation Thumbnail image of the renovation, undertaken in stages, 
painstakingly in progress In 1986 work began on a massive renovation of the Thomas Jefferson Building as it approached its one hundredth birthday in 1997. The heart of that building, the Main Reading Room, is shown before renovation. (Photograph by Marita Clance) Pictured here, the renovation, undertaken in stages, painstakingly in progress. The Main Reading Room reopened in 1991. (Photograph by Reid Baker)

Disputes continued after the building was authorized in 1886. Responsibility for clearing the site was unclear (several buildings had to be razed) and Capitol landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted protested the building's location, which shut out "the whole view of the Capitol building from Pennsylvania Avenue-the main approach from Capitol hill." Another controversy, this one about the selection of the proper cement for the foundation, proved to be architect Smithmeyer's undoing, and he was dismissed in 1888. The building's construction was placed under the direction of Brig. Gen. Thomas Lincoln Casey, Chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Casey and his Superintendent of Construction, civil engineer Bernard R. Green, had successfully completed the construction of the Washington Monument and the State, War, and Navy (now the Old Executive Office) Building and were trusted by the Congress. The cornerstone was laid in 1890. Paul Pelz, who replaced Smithmeyer as architect in 1888, was himself dismissed in 1892 by architect Edward Pearce Casey, General Casey's son, who supervised most of the interior decoration.

Known primarily for their ability to keep construction costs to a minimum, General Casey and Bernard Green were infused with a nationalism which complemented Spofford's national library aspirations. They viewed the interior art work as a necessary component in carrying out the building's monumental design and purpose. They also wanted to give American artists an opportunity to display their talents, and employed no less than forty-two American sculptors and painters "to fully and consistently carry out the monumental design and purpose of the building." In a report to Congress in 1896, Superintendent Green stated that the total cost of the mural and decorative painting, the sculpture, and the three massive bronze doors at the main entrance (representing Tradition, Writing, and Painting), was $364,000. In addition, Hinton Perry's fifty-foot wide fountain in front of the building, which depicts a scene in the court of Neptune, cost $22,000. The price of gilding the dome, including the flame of the Torch of Learning at its apex, was $3,800. Yet, the building was still completed for $200,000 less than the total congressional authorization of approximately $6,500,000.

Since 1897, the gilded copper dome has been replaced, and three of the four interior courtyards of the Jefferson Building have been filled. The east courtyards have become bookstacks: the southeast bookstack was completed in 1910, the northeast in 1927. The Coolidge Auditorium, opened in 1925, and the Whittall Pavilion, opened in 1939, occupy the northwest courtyard. The east side of the Jefferson building was extended in the early 1930s providing new quarters for the Rare Book Room when construction was completed in 1934. The Main Reading Room was closed for renovation in 1964-65. In 1984, Congress appropriated $81.5 million for the renovation and restoration of the Jefferson and Adams buildings. Work started in 1986 and is scheduled for completion in 1995.

The Jefferson Building is a heroic setting for a national institution. Today it is generally recognized as a unique blending of art and architecture, a structure that celebrated the universality of knowledge and symbolizes American turn-of-the- century optimism. The elaborate embellishment of its interior is worth careful attention, for a few structures represents human thought and aspiration in such dramatic fashion.

The Adams Building

In 1928, at the urging of Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam, Congress authorized the purchase of land directly east of the Library's Main Building for the construction of an Annex Building. In 1930, $6,500,000 was appropriated for its construction, for a tunnel connecting it to the Main Building, and for certain changes in the east front of the Main Building, including the construction of the Rare Book Room. An additional appropriation in 1935 brought the total provision of funds to cover $8 million. The simple classical structure was intended, essentially, as a functional and efficient bookstack "encircled with work spaces." It was designed by the Washington architectural firm of Pierson & Wilson with Alexander Buel Trowbridge as a consulting architect. The contract completion by June 24, 1938, but the building was not ready for occupancy until December 2, 1938. The move of the Card Division started on December 12, and it opened its doors for business to the public in the new building on January 3, 1939.

Thumbnail image of bronze doors decorated with representations by sculptor Lee Lawrie The second Library building, originally called the Annex Building, was renamed for man of letters and second president of the United States John Adams in 1980. The building's bronze doors are decorated with representations, by sculptor Lee Lawrie, of historical figures credited with giving the art of writing to their people since ancient times. (Photograph by Reid Baker)

On April 13, 1976, in a ceremony at the Jefferson Memorial marking the birthday of Thomas Jefferson, President Ford signed into law the act to change the name of the Library of Congress Annex Building to the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building. In 1980, the structure acquired its present name, which honors John Adams, the man of letters and president of the United States who in 1800 approved the law establishing the Library of Congress.

The dignified exterior of the Adams Building is faced with white Georgia marble. Its twelve tiers of stacks provide about thirteen acres of shelf space and shelf capacity for about ten million books.

Thumbnail image of  North Reading Room The North Reading Room on the fifth floor of the Adams Building holds a reference collection focused primarily on business and economics, political science, education, and sociology. Among its most prominent decorative elements are near-life-size paintings of all Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims by artist Ezra Winter. (Photograph by Reid Baker)

Today, the building's decorative style, which contains element of "Art Deco" inspired by the Exposition des Arts Dècoratifs held in Paris in 1925, is widely admired. The history of the written word is depicted in sculptured figures by Lee Lawrie on the bronze doors at the west (Second Street) and east (Third Street) entrances. Decorative features in the first floor lobbies and corridors and in the fifth floor lobbies and reading rooms are worth special note.

On the fifth floor, the north reading room is decorated by murals by artist Ezra Winter that illustrate the characters in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Four murals by Ezra Winter decorate the South Reading Room. The theme is drawn from the quotations from Thomas Jefferson's writings which are inscribed in the murals and reflect Jefferson's thoughts on Freedom, Labor, the Living Generation, Education, and Democratic Government. The characters and costumes depicted are those of Jefferson's time. A portrait of Jefferson with his residence, Monticello, in the background is in a lunette over the reference desk at the north end of the room.

Thumbnail image of northern lunette in the South 
Reading Room of the Adams Building The northern lunette in the South Reading Room of the Adams Building dedicates the room to Thomas Jefferson. Murals by Ezra Winter and devoted to Jefferson decorate all the reading room walls, accompanied by side panels containing Jefferson's writings which demonstrate the breadth of his interests and his philosophy. (Photograph by Reid Baker)

On the left half of the panel of the east wall, Jefferson's view on Freedom:

The ground of Liberty is to be gained by inches. We must be contented to secure what we can get from time to time and eternally press forward for what is yet to get. It takes time to persuade men to do even what is for their own good.
Jefferson to Rev. Charles Clay, January 27, 1790

His views on Labor also are on the east wall:

Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of god, if he ever had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made the peculiar deposits for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire which otherwise might escape from the earth.
From Notes on Virginia, 1782

On the south wall, the panel over the clock contains a quotation about the Living Generation:

The earth belongs always to the living generation. They manage it then, and what proceeds form it, as they please during their usufruct. They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please.
Jefferson to James Madison, September 6, 1789

On the left half of the panel on the west wall, Jefferson's view of Education is illustrated by the quotation:

Educate and inform the mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them. Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression of the body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.
Jefferson to James Madison, December 20, 1787 (first two sentences)
Jefferson to P.S. Dupont de Nemours, April 24, 1816 (last sentence)

Jefferson's views on Democratic Government, also on the west wall, are illustrated by the quotation:

The people of every country are the only safe guardians of their own rights, and are the only instruments which can be used for their destruction. It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, that, too of the people with a certain degree of instruction.
Jefferson to John Wyche, May 19, 1809 (first sentence)
Jefferson to George Washington, January 4, 1786 (second sentence)

The James Madison Memorial Building

In 1957, Librarian of Congress L. Quincy Mumford initiated studies for a third Library building. Congress appropriated planning funds for that structure, today's James Madison Memorial Building, in 1960 and construction was authorized in 1965. The cornerstone was laid in 1974 and Pres. Ronald Reagan participated in dedication ceremonies on November 20, 1981, when the building was completed. The building serves both as the Library's third major structure and as this nation's official memorial to James Madison, the "father" of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the fourth president of the United States.

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president of the United States The James Madison Memorial Building is the Library's newest building and the nation's official memorial to Madison -- fourth president of the United States and "Father of the U.S. Constitution." This statue by Walter Hancock is the most prominent feature on the first floor of the building. Eight quotes from Madison are written on the surrounding walls. (Photograph by Reid Baker)

That a major Library of Congress building should also become a memorial to James Madison is fitting, for the institution's debt to him is considerable. In 1783, as a member of the Continental Congress by proposing a list of books that would be useful to legislators, an effort that preceded by seventeen years the establishment of the Library of Congress. In 1815, Madison was president of the United States and a keen observer when the library of his close personal friend and collaborator, Thomas Jefferson, became the foundation of a enlightened statesman who believed the power of knowledge was essential for individual liberty and democratic government.

Two quotations from Madison about knowledge, liberty, and learning, are located on each side of the main entrance of the Madison Building on Independence Avenue.

On the left side of the main entrance:

Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
Madison to W. T. Barry, August 4, 1822

On the right side of the entrance:

What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of liberty and learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual and surest support?
Madison to W. T. Barry, August 4, 1822

Modern in style, the Madison Building was designed by the firm of DeWitt, Poor and Shelton, Associated Architects. It is one of the three largest public buildings in the Washington, D.C., area (the others are the Pentagon and the F.B.I. Building), and contains 2,100,000 square feet with 1,500,000 square feet of assignable space. It houses administrative offices, including the Office of the Librarian, as well as the Copyright Office, the Congressional Research Service, and the Law Library. The building also holds the Library's map, manuscript, music, motion picture, newspaper, and graphic arts collections, and eight of the Library's reading rooms.

Thumbnail image of Madison Building The Madison Building houses the Librarian's Office, the Copyright Office, the Congressional Research Service, the Law Library, and a variety of special collections. The building's sixth floor cafeteria and dining rooms are available to tourists as well as congressional staff, its meeting rooms are often the scenes of free poetry readings and panel discussions, and its exhibition areas and constantly filled with treasures from the Library's collections. (Photograph by Jim Higgins)

Over the main entrance is four-story relief in bronze, "Falling Books," by Frank Eliscu. Off the entrance hall to the immediate left is the James Madison Memorial Hall, which has eight quotations from Madison on its walls. A heroic statue by Walter Hancock in the center portrays Madison as a young man in his thirties, holding in his right hand volume 83 of the Encyclopédie Méthodique, which was published in Paris between 1782-1832. At the end of the entrance hall, above the doorways to the Manuscript Reading Room and the Manuscript Division office, are a pair of bronze medallions by Robert Alexander Weinmann. The one on the left shows the profile of Madison and the one on the right depicts Madison at work.

Contents - Preface - Library of Congress - Collections
Buildings - Librarians - Further Reading - Concordance

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