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Discovering the Treasures of the Library of Congress: A Historian‘s Perspective

As a historian, I have always been in awe of the Library of Congress. With over 173 million items in its collections, spanning more than 5,000 years of human history and culture, it is truly a wonder of the modern world. From ancient clay tablets to born-digital materials, the Library‘s vast holdings are an unparalleled resource for scholars, researchers, and curious minds of all kinds.

A Brief History of the Library of Congress

The story of the Library of Congress begins in 1800, when President John Adams signed a bill establishing a reference library for Congress, with an initial appropriation of $5,000 for books. The Library was initially housed in the Capitol Building, but tragically, much of the original collection was destroyed when the British burned the Capitol during the War of 1812.

In a stroke of luck, retired President Thomas Jefferson had accumulated the largest personal collection of books in the United States, numbering some 6,487 volumes. Jefferson offered to sell his library to Congress as a replacement, and in 1815, Congress approved the purchase for $23,950. Jefferson‘s wide-ranging collection, reflecting his varied interests in science, philosophy, literature, and more, formed the nucleus of the new Library of Congress.

Over the following decades, the Library‘s collections grew rapidly, thanks in part to the copyright deposit system established in 1870, which required all copyright applicants to send two copies of their work to the Library. By the late 19th century, the Library had outgrown its cramped quarters in the Capitol and needed a new home. In 1897, the magnificent Thomas Jefferson Building opened its doors, providing a suitably grand palace for the nation‘s growing repository of knowledge.

The Thomas Jefferson Building: A Palace of Learning

The Thomas Jefferson Building is a work of art in itself, a masterpiece of the Beaux-Arts style designed by architects John L. Smithmeyer and Paul J. Pelz. The exterior is adorned with 33 ethnological heads carved in granite, representing the diverse races and cultures of humanity. Above the main entrance is a sculptural group representing the "Progress of Civilization," with figures symbolizing various fields of learning and achievement.

Inside, the building is no less spectacular, with ornate marble halls, grand staircases, and soaring spaces filled with symbolic art and decoration. The Great Hall features giant marble columns, stained glass windows, and intricate mosaics depicting the history of writing and the arts. The Main Reading Room is a cathedral-like space capped by a 160-foot-high dome, with statues of great thinkers and artists lining the walls.

But the real treasures of the Jefferson Building are the reading rooms themselves, where scholars can request and examine rare books, manuscripts, maps, and other materials from the Library‘s collections. The building houses several specialized reading rooms, such as the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room, the Geography and Map Reading Room, and the Microform and Electronic Resources Center.

The Scope and Significance of the Library‘s Collections

It is hard to overstate the breadth and depth of the Library of Congress‘ holdings. According to the Library‘s latest annual report, the collections total over 173 million items, including:

  • 40 million cataloged books and other print materials
  • 74.5 million manuscripts
  • 5.6 million maps
  • 8.2 million pieces of sheet music
  • 3.6 million recordings
  • 15.2 million photographs
  • 1.1 million posters
  • 1.8 million government publications

The Library adds an average of 12,000 items to its collections each day, and its holdings span 470 languages. The collections are so comprehensive that they would stretch from Washington, DC to Pensacola, Florida if placed end-to-end.

But it‘s not just the size of the collections that is impressive – it‘s their historical and cultural significance. The Library holds some of the most rare and valuable documents in human history, such as one of only three perfect vellum copies of the Gutenberg Bible in existence, and the oldest known book printed in the Americas, the Bay Psalm Book from 1640.

The Library is also home to priceless artifacts like Abraham Lincoln‘s life mask, Thomas Jefferson‘s handwritten draft of the Declaration of Independence, Alexander Graham Bell‘s first recording of a human voice, and original manuscripts by countless literary giants such as Walt Whitman, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ernest Hemingway.

But the Library‘s collections are not limited to just books and documents. It also holds the world‘s largest collection of maps, including the oldest known map to include the word "America," the Waldseemüller Map of 1507. The Library‘s music collections are equally impressive, with original compositions by luminaries like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and John Philip Sousa.

The Library even holds unusual items like a collection of over 10,000 comic books, the contents of Abraham Lincoln‘s pockets on the night of his assassination, and locks of hair from Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The eclectic nature of the collections reflects the Library‘s mission to preserve a universal record of human knowledge and creativity.

Preservation and Access in the Digital Age

Of course, preserving and providing access to such a vast and varied collection is a monumental challenge, especially in an age of rapidly evolving digital technologies. The Library has been a leader in the field of digital preservation, developing innovative techniques for capturing, storing, and making accessible electronic resources of all kinds.

One major initiative is the Library‘s ongoing digitization efforts, aimed at making more of its collections available online to researchers and the public around the world. To date, the Library has digitized over 60 million items, from historic photographs and maps to books and recordings. These digital collections are freely available through the Library‘s website, which receives over 114 million visits annually.

The Library has also been a pioneer in web archiving, preserving born-digital content like websites and social media posts for future generations. Since 2000, the Library has collected over 2 petabytes of web content, documenting everything from political campaigns to cultural phenomena.

In addition to its digital initiatives, the Library is also working to expand access to its physical collections through programs like the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, which provides free braille and audio materials to over 800,000 patrons across the country. The Library also hosts numerous exhibitions, lectures, concerts, and other public events each year, welcoming over 1.9 million visitors to its Capitol Hill campus.

A Symbol of Knowledge and Democracy

For a historian, the Library of Congress represents the very best of what humanity can achieve – the tireless pursuit and preservation of knowledge across all boundaries of time, space, and culture. It is a symbol of the American commitment to free and open access to information as the bedrock of a democratic society.

As Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden has said, "Libraries are a cornerstone of democracy—where information is free and equally available to everyone. People tend to take that for granted, and they don‘t realize what is at stake when that is put at risk."

In today‘s era of misinformation, disinformation, and alternative facts, institutions like the Library of Congress are more important than ever. By collecting, preserving, and making accessible the authentic records of our past and present, the Library helps to anchor us in a shared reality and empower us to engage critically with the world around us.

As a historian, I can think of no greater privilege than to be able to access the unparalleled collections of the Library of Congress in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. It is truly a national treasure and a gift to all who believe in the power of learning to change lives and shape the course of history.