The Library of Congress, America's oldest national cultural institution, will be two hundred years old in the year 2000. With generous support from the U.S. Congress, it has become the largest repository of recorded knowledge in the world and a symbol of the vital connection between knowledge and democracy.
If ever a library had a single founder, Thomas Jefferson is the founder of the Library of Congress. His personal library is the Library's core, and the vast range of his interest determined the universal and diverse nature of the Library's collections and activities. The active mind was central to Jefferson's concept of government; he felt there was "no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer." He believed that self-government depended on the free, unhampered pursuit of truth by an informed and involved citizenry. Today's Library of Congress epitomizes Jefferson's faith in learning and his practical determination to make democracy work.
Thomas Jefferson's Library, the seed from which today's Library grew, is now housed in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. The volume in the foreground is a work by sixteenth-century master Andrea Palladio, whose classical influence can be seen in Jefferson's own architectural designs. (Photograph by Reid Baker)
In this bicentennial decade, the Library of Congress will honor its founder and renew its commitment to the knowledge-based society that Jefferson envisioned. The Library not only provides information and ideas to Congress and the nation; it also sets cataloging and bibliographic standards that are used by libraries throughout the world. It is testing new electronic technologies that will share the Library's collections with schools and research institutions across America and, ultimately, with all the people of America and the world. Today it also is helping parliamentary libraries in emerging democracies of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union become effective resources and catalysts of change. When the renovation and restoration work in the Library's Thomas Jefferson Building is completed in the mid-1990s, this magnificent structure will contain reading rooms representing the cultural legacies of the entire world.
The unleashed, unlimited pursuit of truth may be the last frontier and the ultimate proving ground for our American ideal of freedom. In a world of increasing physical restraints and limitations, it is only in the life of the mind and spirit that the horizons of freedom can remain truly infinite. We must rediscover what we should have known all along, that the pursuit of truth is the noblest part of Jefferson's legacy.
James H. Billington
Library of Congress