Books for Congress

Today, the Library of Congress celebrates its birthday. On April 24, 1800, President John Adams approved the appropriation of $5,000 for the purchase of “such books as may be necessary for the use of congress.”

The books, the first purchased for the Library of Congress, were ordered from London and arrived in 1801. The collection of 740 volumes and three maps was stored in the U.S. Capitol, the Library’s first home. On January 26, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson approved the first legislation that defined the role and functions of the new institution.

The Library of Congress, Washington. c1900. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

The Library of Congress is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution and serves as the research arm of Congress. The Library’s mission is to make its resources available and useful to the Congress and the American people, and to sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations. As of 2021, the vast holdings of the Library number over 173 million items.

Construction of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. April 19, 1893. Levin C. Handy, photographer, April 19, 1893. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

Ainsworth Rand Spofford, Librarian of Congress from 1864 to 1897, was responsible for transforming the Library into an institution of national significance in the Jeffersonian spirit. Appointed by Abraham Lincoln, Spofford centralized the registration and deposit of copyright activities through the Copyright Law of 1870. This law had a direct effect on vastly increasing the Library’s collections as it extended copyright protection to “…a painting, drawing, statue, statuary, model or design for a work of the fine arts, a photograph of the same…” and stipulated that two copies of every published work in the U.S.—books, pamphlets, maps, prints, photographs, and pieces of music registered for copyright—be deposited at the Library. He also linked the legislative and national functions of the Library—first in practice, next by law—through his reorganization of the institution, which was approved by Congress in 1897.

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