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Collection Freedom's Fortress: The Library of Congress, 1939 to 1953

About this Collection

Freedom’s Fortress: The Library of Congress, 1939-1953, contains a selection of 209 letters, memoranda, photographs, and publications (1,176 images) documenting a momentous period in the history of the Library of Congress when the institution underwent a myriad of changes that established it as one of America’s foremost citadels of intellectual freedom.  During and shortly after World War II, Librarians of Congress Archibald MacLeish and Luther Harris Evans adopted new administrative procedures that improved the Library’s ability to acquire collections and to become a more vital resource both for Congress and the public.  The selected documents are from four collections housed in the Library’s Manuscript Division: Library of Congress Archives and the personal papers of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish, and Manuscript Division Chief David C. Mearns.

Librarians MacLeish (October 2, 1939-December 19, 1944) and Evans (June 30, 1945-July 5, 1953) reevaluated and reconsidered the role of the Library of Congress vis-à-vis the nation’s information needs. MacLeish established the Library’s service canons, reorganized the Library, and placed its great resources at the disposal of the nation. Evans expanded services, increased emphasis on the acquisition program, and elevated the Library’s international role.

The two men had no doubts about the Library’s mission during their tenures. The Library of Congress became, in the words of Library employee Lucy Salamanca, a "fortress of freedom," a beacon of knowledge and haven for the written word.  In his foreword to Salamanca’s book, Fortress of Freedom: The Story of the Library of Congress (1942), which inspired the title of this online presentation, MacLeish wrote, "World events have made the Library of Congress more important now than it has ever been. Today it is, physiologically speaking, the nerve center of our national life… Every resource at its command is strained for national service to an extent neither possible nor necessary in the past."

Archival Collections

The selected items, drawn from the Library of Congress Archives and other Manuscript Division collections, include correspondence, photographs, and other materials that provide a glimpse into the administration of the Library of Congress, the building of the Library’s collections, the Library’s outreach program, and the role of the Library’s staff.  Significantly more documentation, however, can be found in the larger collections from which these items were selected.

The Library of Congress Archives, the primary collection, contains more than three million items tracing the history of the Library beginning in1800.  Early records in the Archives include the correspondence of the Librarians of Congress from 1846 until 1940. This correspondence is complemented by the Central File, which spans the administrations of John Russell Young (1897-1899), Herbert Putnam (1899-1939), Archibald MacLeish (1939-1944), and Luther Harris Evans (1945-1953).  The Archives also house fourteen volumes of General Orders—the official statements of Library policy and procedures. Annual accountings of the Library’s acquisitions, services, and other activities are found in the reports of individual Library divisions and departments. These accounts form the basis for the Librarian’s printed annual reports to the Congress. The Archives include a draft of The History of the Library of Congress, 1897-1939, prepared by Frederick B. Ashley, former Superintendent of the Main Reading Room (1915-27) and former Chief Assistant Librarian (1927-36), which records the development of the Library of Congress into a national library.  Other items of special interest are the ledgers, receipts, and correspondence describing the construction of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building.

Three additional collections represented in this presentation are the personal papers of Felix Frankfurter, Archibald MacLeish, and David C. Mearns—important figures in the history of the Library of Congress.  Their correspondence, diaries, memoranda, notes, speeches, and writings provide insight into the workings of the Library of Congress during the years covered by Freedom’s Fortress.