March 16, 2000 New Book Celebrates 200-Year History of the Library of Congress

Contact: Library of Congress contact: Audrey Fischer (202) 707-0022 | Yale University Press contact: Alison Pratt (203) 432-0971

America's Library: The Story of the Library of Congress, 1800-2000 by James Conaway will be published in April by the Library of Congress in cooperation with Yale University Press. The publication is one of several planned to celebrate the Library's Bicentennial on April 24, 2000.

The Library was founded in 1800 with the primary mission of serving the research needs of the United States Congress. During the past two centuries the collections have evolved into the largest repository of knowledge in the world and are accessible to all Americans. The Library maintains a collection of nearly 119 million books, maps, manuscripts, photographs, motion pictures, sound recordings and digital materials in some 460 languages.

"In America's Library, James Conaway invites you to learn the story of this great and complex institution, during its two centuries of development, as the men and women within its walls collect, preserve, and make useful the heritage it holds," said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. "Its collections represent and celebrate the many and varied ways that one generation has informed another."

This lively account of the Library of Congress is filled with an immense cast of characters ranging from presidents, poets, journalists, and members of Congress to collectors, artists, curators, and eccentrics. The author focuses the Library's 200 year history on the 13 men who have been appointed by presidents to lead the Library of Congress. He investigates how the Librarians' experiences and contributions, as well as the Library's collections, have reflected political and intellectual developments in the United States. Each Librarian confronted great challenges: the entire Library collection was lost when the British burned the Capitol in 1814, and rebuilt a year later with Thomas Jefferson's personal library; in the 1940s, a backlog of 1.5 million objects waited to be cataloged; the gigantic task of replacing the card catalog with a computerized system was undertaken in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the current Librarian, Dr. Billington, has expanded the reach of the institution nationwide through the National Digital Library Program ( The Library's widely acclaimed Web site is one of the most heavily used in the federal government.

Yet each Librarian also enjoyed the excitement of acquiring unique treasures -- from Walt Whitman's walking stick to the papers of the Wright brothers, from the Civil War photographs of Mathew Brady to the archives of Leonard Bernstein. The thrill of using these collections in the Library's Thomas Jefferson building is conveyed in the book's introduction, "One Writer's Library," by biographer Edmund Morris:

"Those lights, those glowing rectangles and portholes, are windows into the central repository of our nation's cultural intelligence: a cerebellum, a sanctum of free thought forever energized by the spirit of Thomas Jefferson."

Conaway is the author of eight books, including The Smithsonian: 150 Years of Adventure, Discovery and Wonder, copublished by Smithsonian Books and Alfred A. Knopf in connection with the Smithsonian's 150th anniversary celebration in 1996. He is the former Washington editor of Harper's and has written for many publications including Civilization, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic and Preservation.

America's Library -- a 256-page, hardbound book -- is available for $39.95 in major bookstores and from the Library of Congress Sales Shops (Credit card orders: 202-707-0204).


PR 00-036
ISSN 0731-3527