Library of Congress

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Through a chain of seemingly random historic events, the Library of Congress is the world's largest library. Many countries have official national libraries, but another oddity is that the United States of America officially has national libraries only for medicine and agriculture, the National Library of Medicine (Bethesda, Maryland) and the National Agricultural Library (Beltsville, Maryland).

The Library operates the United States Copyright Office.

For all practical purposes, however, the Library of Congress is the U.S. national library. It is recognized worldwide not only for the size of its collections, but for its contributions to library science, such as Project MARC, the first large-scale MAchine-Readable Cataloging project).

Created in 1800, the Library of Congress was originally to be just that: a reference library for the exclusive use of the Congress. It was located in the United States Capitol building, which was set afire by British troops in August 1814, during the War of 1812. Shortly afterwards, former President Thomas Jefferson, a renowned scholar and bibliophile, offered his personal library, collected over 50 years,

"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. In offering his collection to Congress, Jefferson anticipated controversy over the nature of his collection, which included books in foreign languages and volumes of philosophy, science, literature, and other topics not normally viewed as part of a legislative library. He wrote, "I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer."[1]

Copyright and Building the Collections

For a time, the Library of Congress was just that, until Ainsworth Spofford became the Librarian of Congress in 1864, who held the post until 1897. One of his major contributions, with many side effects, was to help get copyright law established, and create the Copyright Office as a division of the Library. In general, to get a U.S. copyright, one fills out a form, pays a small amount, and submits it with two copies of the work. For many years, the Library kept one or both of those copies, building the collection with new works. While there was little direct acquisition cost, the process of properly cataloging those works is quite challenging and needed a growing professional staff.

Access to the general collections

The Library operates reading rooms for the general public, usually construed as post-secondary. Only legislators and staff of the Congress can directly check out books, but the Library has a worldwide interlibrary loan program with other major reference libraries.

An increasing number of its indices and collections are available on the Internet, with its public services called Thomas ( in honor of Thomas Jefferson.

Specialized collections and access services

There are a variety of specialized collections with more restricted access, including Rare Books, Manuscripts, Music, etc. The Division for the Blind and Physically Handicapped is a major producer of Braille and "talking book" versions of printed material.

Congressional Research Service and Federal Research Division

In its role of supporting Congress, the Library operates a division that will do research on request by Senators and Congressmen. Originally called the Legislative Reference Service (LRS), this organization is now called the Congressional Research Service. While its signed reports are highly regarded for objectivity, they are technically available only for official use in the Congress, although, in practice, most are on the Internet a few days after creation. There is a continuing legislative argument that they should immediately be in the public domain.

A much smaller organization, the Federal Research Division (FRD), did research primarily using the Library collections for the Executive Branch and other organizations, under contract. In such areas as producing reference handbooks on countries of the world, in a project funded by the United States Army, FRD also had access to security-classified material.

Physical facilities

For a number of years, the Library fit in one building, today called the Thomas Jefferson Building, which opened in 1897, and is still considered one of the most beautiful buildings in Washington, D.C. As the collections and staff grew, a second, more utilitarian building, now called the John Adams Building, was started in 1922 and completed in 1935. All the buildings are connected by underground tunnels for people and books.

As knowledge grew exponentially, and the Library took on more and more challenges, various units were scattered over the Washington metropolitan area. Many of these buildings lacked the specialized construction and facilities needed for their function. In 1971, ground was broken for an enormous building intended to be an efficient library, although the James Madison Memorial Building did not fully anticipate the computer technologies that would be needed after it opened in 1980. The designers of the Madison Building, however, had anticipated the growth of information technology, and had designed with future expansion in mind.


  1. History, Library of Congress