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The Library of Congress was established by an act of Congress in 1800 when President John Adams signed a bill providing for the transfer of the seat of government from Philadelphia to the new capital city of Washington. The legislation described a reference library for Congress only, containing "such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress -- and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein…"
Established with $5,000 appropriated by the legislation, it was housed in the new Capitol until August 1814, when invading British troops set fire to the Capitol Building, burning and pillaging the contents of the small library.
Within a month, retired President Thomas Jefferson offered his personal library as a replacement. Jefferson had spent 50 years accumulating books, "putting by everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable in every science"; his library was considered to be one of the finest in the United States.
The murals in the six lunettes by John White Alexander (1856-1915) illustrate The Evolution of the Book. In historical order, the subjects begin at the south end with The Cairn, Oral Tradition, and Egyptian Hieroglyphics and continue at the north end with Picture Writing, The Manuscript Book, and The Printing Press.
In The Cairn the artist depicts a company of primitive men who have arranged a pile of stones along the seashore, perhaps in memory of a dead comrade, to commemorate an event, or merely as a record of the stages of their journey.
In Oral Tradition the artist depicts members of a nomadic tribe who listen while a storyteller recites the stories and legends of their culture, thus preserving and disseminating their contents.
In Egyptian Hieroglyphics the artist depicts a young Egyptian workman who sits on a scaffold and cuts a hieroglyphic inscription into the hard stone above the portal of a temple precinct, making the information it contains something that will last throughout the ages. More stones and a pyramid are visible in the distance, across the river.
In Picture Writing the artist depicts a young American Indian who sits in the foreground with a saucer of paint beside him and illustrates a tribal story upon the carefully prepared hide of an animal making the information both durable and portable. A young Indian girl observes his skillful work.
In The Manuscript Book the artist depicts the scriptorium of a monastery, where one monk sits in the pale light of a small window, laboriously illuminating a copy of the pages of a great folio book, while in the background a supervisor reviews the work of another copy prepared by a colleague.
In The Printing Press the artist depicts the famous printer Johannes Gutenberg (ca.1400-1468), the first person in Western Europe to create a great book using movable metal type. The master, with an assistant beside him, reviews a newly printed proof sheet while an apprentice strenuously pulls against the handle of the press to make another copy.
The series of murals in the lunettes of the Reading Room vestibule are by Elihu Vedder (1836-1923) and depict Government. The central mural, located over the doorway leading into the Main Reading Room, represents the abstract concept of a republic as an ideal state. The paired lunettes to the right and left, respectively, depict the practical workings of government, and the conditions that can result from good or bad administration. The prominent location of these murals reinforces the significance of the advancement of knowledge and learning in a democracy and the role of government in creating and sustaining a great national library for those purposes.
In Government the artist depicts a dignified female figure against a background of the rich foliage of an oak tree, emblematic of strength and stability. She sits on a marble bench supported by the forms of antique voting urns placed between figures of guardian lions. She is crowned with a wreath and holds a golden scepter (the Golden Rule) and a tablet inscribed with words from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. She is flanked by winged figures of genius. The one on the right holds a bridle and the reins of power, representing the restraining influence of order. The one on the left holds a sword, representing justice or the authority of government and its duty to protect and defend the state.
In Corrupt Legislation the artist depicts a female figure of questionable virtue against a lush and overripe background of twining grapevines. She sits on a throne framed by cornucopias overflowing with coins, rather than fruit or grain. The flow of the coin is directed back toward herself rather than outward, for the good of the people. In her hand she holds a sliding scale, more susceptible to fraud than a balanced scale, symbolizing the type of justice which she deals. On the right a wealthy man places a bag of gold upon her scales as a bribe. At his feet are more bags of gold and a strongbox. The ballots that spill from an overturned voting urn represent his corrupt control of the sources of power. In his lap he holds the book of Law, which he uses to his advantage.
With her right hand the central figure dismisses a simply clad girl, representing Labor. Carrying her empty distaff and spindle, she pleads for the work that should be hers by right, but which she cannot obtain from a corrupt legislature, inattentive to the wrongs of the people. A broken jar at her feet represents her hard earned savings that she has lost. Behind her the factories are smokeless and idle, while those behind the rich man on the right belch with the smoke of his prosperity.
In Anarchy the artist depicts the disastrous failure of government as a naked female figure who raves over the ruins of the civilization she has destroyed. She holds an incendiary torch formed from the scroll of learning. Serpents twist in her hair, and she tramples upon a scroll, a lyre, a Bible, and a book, the symbols, respectively, of Learning, Art, Religion, and Law. At her feet, under the broken arch of a building is a bomb with a lighted fuse, another tool of destruction. On the right a figure of Violence gazes upon the cup of madness held by Anarchy while he pries out the cornerstone of a great building, causing it to collapse, representing the destruction of the fabric of civilization. On the left, a female figure of Ignorance uses a surveyor-s staff to force the wreckage of civilization into a chasm. The broken millwheel and millstone in an uncultivated field represent the failure of industry and agriculture.
In Good Administration the artist depicts a noble female figure who holds an open book in her lap and in her hand a pair of scales, evenly balanced. She rests her left hand upon a shield, quartered to represent the even balance of parties and classes that should exist in a well-ordered democracy. On the shield are a weight, scales, and a rule, the emblems of a just government. The frame of her chair forms an arch, a construction where every stone performs an equal service, symbolic of the equal part that all should play in a democratic form of government. On the right a youth casts his ballot into a voting urn, his decision informed by the study of the books he carries under his arm. On the left a young girl winnows wheat into another voting urn so that the good grains fall into its mouth, while the chaff is scattered by the wind, an action symbolic of the care with which a people should elect its public servants. In the background a field of wheat is symbolic of prosperous and careful toil and intelligent and virtuous government.
In Peace and Prosperity the artist depicts a beautiful female figure against the background of a lush olive tree, a symbol of the Goddess Minerva, peace, fruitfulness, strength, and achievement. She sits holding two wreaths to be bestowed as the reward for excellence and is flanked by two youths. The youth on the left sits upon a jar or ancient amphora while he decorates a piece of pottery. In the background is a Greek temple representing Architecture and in the foreground a lyre for Music. The youth on the right, representing Agriculture, kneels to plant a sapling, an act suggestive of a strong and permanent government under which the tree can grow to reward him with its shade and fruit for many years.