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Biography Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1825-1908)

6th Librarian of Congress 1864-1897

Ainsworth Rand Spofford

The modern history of the Library of Congress began when Ainsworth Rand Spofford became Librarian of Congress, for it was Spofford who transformed the small reference library that served the U.S. Congress  into a national institution that also served the American public.  Spofford permanently joined the legislative and national functions of the Library,  first in practice and then in law through the reorganization of 1897.  He provided his successors as Librarian with four essential prerequisites for the development of an American national library: 1) firm congressional support for the idea of the Library of Congress as both a legislative and a national library; 2) the beginning of a comprehensive collection of Americana; 3) a magnificent new building, itself a national monument; and 4) a strong and independent Librarian of Congress.  Each Librarian of Congress since Spofford has shaped the institution in a different manner, but none has ever wavered from Spofford’s fundamental assertion that the Library was both a legislative and a national institution.

Spofford was born in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, on September 12, 1825.  He was tutored at home and developed into an avid reader and student. In 1845  he moved west to Cincinnati and soon found congenial employment as a bookstore clerk in the firm of E.D. Truman, bookseller and publisher; thanks to his efforts the store soon became the city’s leading importer of the books of the New England transcendentalists—his favorite authors.  He was one of the founders of the Literary Club of Cincinnati.  In 1852 he married Sarah Partridge, a schoolteacher formerly from Franklin, Massachusetts and they had three children: Charles, Henry, and Florence.

Spofford began a new career in 1859 as Associate Editor of Cincinnati’s leading newspaper, the Daily Commercial; in his first editorial, titled "A Bibliologist," he attacked the naive book-buying practices of the city librarian.  Two years later the newspaper sent him to Washington, D.C. to report on the opening of the 37th Congress and the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln, a trip that led to his acceptance, in September 1861, of the position of Assistant Librarian of Congress.  Knowledgeable, industrious, and ambitious, he garnered support from many members of Congress when the post of Librarian of Congress became vacant in late 1864.   On December 31, 1864, President Lincoln named him to the post.  Located in the west front of the U.S. Capitol, the Library had a staff of seven and a book collection of approximately 82,000 volumes.

Spofford immediately set  to work establishing the Library’s national role, and he pursued this cause with energy and political skill.  Congressmen liked him and with help from his friends from Ohio, particularly Rutherford B. Hayes and James A. Garfield, he obtained support for several legislative acts between 1865 and 1870 that ensured the growth of the collections and made the Library of Congress the largest library in the United States.  The new laws included the transfer of the Smithsonian Institution’s library to the Library of Congress, the purchase for $100,000 of the private library of Americana collector Peter Force, and the use of international exchange to build the Library’s collections.  The most important new measure was the copyright law of 1870, which centralized all U.S. copyright registration and deposit activities at the Library.  The new law brought books, pamphlets, maps, prints, photographs, and music into the institution without cost, thus assuring the future growth of the Americana collections and providing the Library with an essential and unique national function.

In his annual reports to Congress, Spofford continually emphasized that a national library should be a  permanent, comprehensive collection of national literature that represented "the complete product of the American mind in every department of science and literature."  Comprehensiveness was essential, for in his view the American national library should serve both the American citizenry and its elected representatives.  Books and information were needed about all subjects and, as the library of the American government, the Library was the natural site for such a comprehensive collection.

In 1874, for the first time, the copyright law brought in more books that were obtained through purchase, and three years later Spofford’s already cramped library was out of space and more than 70,000 books, he noted, were "piled on the floor in all directions."  His struggle for a separate building, which began in 1871, was a crucial part of his national library effort.  A new structure would ensure the unique status of the Library of Congress among American libraries—and would give the U.S. a national library that would equal and someday surpass the great national libraries of Europe.  The latter argument was especially popular with Congress.  Spofford proposed a large structure that would also serve as an efficient, well-functioning building.  The new building, however, was not authorized until 1886 and not completed for another decade.  Spofford’s dream was fulfilled in 1897 when the doors to the monumental and ornate new structure across the east plaza from the Capitol, at the time the "largest, safest and costliest library building in the world," were finally opened to an admiring public.

For the most part, Spofford operated independently of the American library movement and the American Library Association (ALA). By 1876, when ALA was founded, the Library of Congress already was the leading library in the country, and Spofford was completely absorbed in the struggle for a new building.  His independence from other libraries and librarians was accentuated by his idea of a national library as well as by his personal temperament.  The national library was a single, enormous accumulation of the nation’s literature.  He did not view it as a focal point for cooperative library activities and was not inclined to exert leadership in that direction.

From November 16 to December 7, 1896, the Joint Committee on the Library held hearings about the Library of Congress, its "condition," and its organization.  Although Spofford was the principal witness, the ALA sent six librarians to testify.  The testimony of Melvil Dewey and Herbert Putnam on the desirable future role of the Library of Congress as a “national” library was of special interest; both men avoided direct criticism of Spofford, but it was obvious that their view of the proper functions of the Library differed from that of the aging Librarian.  Putnam wholeheartedly endorsed Dewey’s description of the proper and necessary role of a national library: "a center to which the libraries of the whole country can turn for inspiration, guidance, and practical help." Centralized cataloging, interlibrary loan, and a national union catalog were among the services they advocated.

The hearings resulted in a major reorganization and expansion, effective July 1, 1897.  Spofford became Chief Assistant Librarian under a new Librarian of Congress, John Russell Young, and he continued as Chief Assistant Librarian under Herbert Putnam, who became Librarian of Congress in April 1899.  Spofford died in Holderness, New Hampshire, on August 11, 1908.

Spofford’s professional and personal interests were accurately described in the formidable title of his A Book for All Readers, Designed as an Aid to the Collection, Use, and Preservation of Books and Formation of Public and Private Libraries (1900).  He was respected by librarians, politicians, and the general public, not only because of his accomplishments at the Library, but also because of his fair-mindedness and enthusiasm for sharing his views about his favorite subjects—reading, bibliography, and collection building.   Librarian of Congress Putnam paid his friend Ainsworth Rand Spofford a final official tribute in the Library’s 1908 Annual Report: "His most enduring service—the increase of (the Library’s) collections—continued to the last few weeks of his life, and continued with the enthusiasm, the devotion, the simple, patient, and arduous concentration that had always distinguished it.  The history of it during its most influential period will be the history of the Library from 1861 to 1897.  This will in due course…appear."  (JYC)


Cole, John Y., ed., Ainsworth Rand Spofford: Bookman and Librarian. Littleton, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 1975.

Selected Works at the Library of Congress