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 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 2020, the vast holdings of the Library number over 170 million items.
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.
- To learn more about the history of the Library, read Jefferson’s Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress. The online version of the book includes a Concordance of Images, showcasing the history of the Library’s buildings and collections. Also view the information provided in the About the Library and History of the Library of Congress sections of the website.
- Read the April 22, 2022 blog post, Happy Birthday, Library of Congress: 222 Years and Still Growing, to see architectural drawings showing the location in the Capitol Building of the original Library of Congress and engravings and photographs as the space got crowded with materials ahead of the construction of a separate Library of Congress building.
- See also the online reconstruction of Jefferson’s library in the exhibit Thomas Jefferson’s Library. Jefferson reinterpreted British philosopher Francis Bacon’s organizational categories of “Memory,” “Reason,” and “Imagination” as “History,” “Philosophy,” and “Fine Arts.”
- Read the Library of Congress Information Bulletin article, “Ainsworth’s Ashes” to learn more about the man responsible for elevating the Library to national prominence.
- Visit the collection Freedom’s Fortress: The Library of Congress, 1939 to 1953. The online presentation includes correspondence, photographs, documents, and other materials which detail the role of the Library of Congress vis-à-vis the nation’s information needs at this significant time in history—establishing the Library as one of America’s foremost citadels of intellectual freedom. Learn more about the Library of Congress Archives—the primary collection containing the historically valuable records of the Library of Congress which depict the development of the Library’s buildings, collections, and staff. The Archives include the correspondence of the Librarians of Congress from 1846 until 1940 and fourteen volumes of General Orders—the official statements of Library policy and procedures as well as annual reports of various divisions and departments.
- See also the Today in History features on the opening of the first Library of Congress building, the birthday of architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, and the purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s library.
- For more photographs of the Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building, search on the phrase Library of Congress Jefferson Building in the Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive, the Detroit Publishing Company and Horydczak collections. Search on that same phrase in Panoramic Photographs to see photographs of the excavation and construction for the Jefferson Building.
- The collection Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey includes twenty-five interior and exterior black–and-white views of the Library of Congress.
- Search also on Library of Congress in the pictorial collections for more images of the Library.
- For newspaper articles up until 1963, search Library of Congress and Congressional Library (an earlier term frequently used by the media) in Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.