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History and Background of the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress, established by an act of Congress of April 24, 1800, was initially housed in the U.S. Capitol. By year's end the first book order for 740 volumes was sent to Messrs. Cabel and Davis, London booksellers, and shipped back to the new capital city in 11 hair trunks and a map case. The collection, which concentrated on law and legislative procedure, slowly grew to 3,000 volumes by 1814. Tragically, that year the books were used as kindling by the British when they burned the Capitol during the assault on Washington.

To replace the collection quickly, Thomas Jefferson offered his private library to Congress at cost. He described the overall nature of his books as follows: "I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from the collections; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer." This acquisition changed the nature of the Library from a small legislative office to the comprehensive national institution that it was to become.

From Jefferson's approximately 6,500 volumes, which formed the heart of the Library, the holdings grew rapidly in the 19th century. The rewritten copyright law of 1870 required that two copies of each book copyrighted must be deposited in the Library in order to receive protection. The resulting flood of material forced construction of a separate building that opened in 1897. The opening of the Jefferson Building and the Main Reading Room ushered in a new era for the Library. For the first time special format collections such as maps, prints, music, and manuscripts were separated from the book collections and served to readers in differing locations. Continued growth required the construction of two additional buildings at the Library's Capitol Hill location: the Adams Building (1939) and the Madison Building (1980). However, the domed Main Reading Room, inspired by the reading room of the British Museum Library, remains the central access point for the Library's collections. Even those who will go on to work in one of the specialized reading rooms often begin their research in the Main Reading Room in order to use the Microform and Electronic Resources Center (LJ-139, the former Computer Catalog Center) and the Main Card Catalog, to obtain an orientation to the Library as a whole, or to use some of the approximately 56,000 volumes in the Main Reading Room's reference collection.

Research in the Library is supported by a variety of electronic resources. The Library of Congress Online Catalog provides information about the Library's collections, while public workstations around the Library provide access to a wide variety of reference databases in electronic format.

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  March 14, 2022
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