June 6, 2023

The Library of Congress

The Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is the United States’ oldest federal cultural institution and the largest library in the world. It began with a collection of 728 books and three maps and has grown into a library of over 170 million items covering almost every discipline of knowledge imaginable. Its collections range from the first draft of the Gettysburg Address, to a perfect vellum Gutenberg Bible, to sheet music by Wolfgang Mozart, to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. With 20 different reading rooms and over 500 miles of bookshelves, the Library of Congress serves as the embodiment of human expression. Now it’s your turn to explore the rich history of the Library of Congress and dive into the beautiful pictures and fascinating stories below. It’s sure to be a page turner.

The Library of Congress – Did you know…

1870 was the year of the copyright deposit law. The new law stated that when an individual applied for a copyright he/she had to submit two copies of their publication to the Library of Congress. At this stage in the Library’s history a spacious room in the U.S. Capitol’s west center building served as its home. However, as more and more books came in through copyright, the library’s collections expanded significantly, and available space was becoming less and less. Books were piling up on the floors and even in the stairwells. In some cases, there were mounds of books nearly five feet high. Consequently, the process of finding a new home for the Library of Congress began.

Construction of the new library across the street from the U.S. Capitol began in 1889. It was completed eight years later in 1897 under budget and ahead of schedule. In fact, most of the library’s sculptures, murals, and decorations were not included in the original budget. According to the Library of Congress “Once the architects realized they were going to be well under budget, they added flourishes and elaborate detailing to the building that was destined to parallel the great museums and libraries of Europe.”

One of the biggest sticking points during the planning stage was the accessibility of the books for Members of Congress. The members had grown accustomed to the convenience of the library being housed in the capitol. During moments of fierce debate on the House floor the library’s resources were at their fingertips and they didn’t want to lose this functionality. Luckily, the Library of Congress’ superintendent Bernard Green had a plan to solve this looming issue.

Underneath First street connecting the Library of Congress to the Capitol is a narrow quarter-mile long underground tunnel with a conveyor belt. In 1897, when the Library of Congress moved out of the Capitol and into what is now known as the Thomas Jefferson Building, a conveyor belt system was built that could carry books back and forth from the Library to the Capitol in a matter of minutes. The Miles Pneumatic Tube company designed a “noiseless” system that linked the House of Representatives Chamber in the U.S. Capitol to a small secluded room directly underneath the Library’s Main Reading Room. The tunnel was appropriately named the Book Tunnel.

Unfortunately, in the early 2000’s, after over one hundred years, the last chapter of the Book Tunnel was finally read and it was sealed off to make room for the new Capitol Visitor Center. Though no longer in use the conveyor belt system still remains hidden underneath the hustle and bustle of the Capitol’s East Plaza.

The Guinness Book of World Records was first published in 1955, and the idea came from the managing Director of the Guinness Brewery Company, Sir Hugh Beaver. An argument over what is the fastest bird in Europe sparked what would become one of the World’s all-time best-selling books. It captures records from the absurd (the longest fingernails), to the fantastical (most amount of dice stacked on a cat’s paw) to the amazing (most amount of one-handed back handsprings) and has entertained millions for decades.

Thirty years after the record book’s the first publication, Old King Cole made it into the Guinness Book of World Records. Standing at just .9mm in size, the Glennifer Press of Scotland turned the British nursery rhyme into the smallest book in the world. It is the size of a period at the end of a sentence. According to the Library of Congress "The book was printed using offset lithographic methods.” Glennifer Press printed 85 copies and the world’s largest library in the world has one of the copy’s in its collection. The tiny book rests in small clear box with a magnifying glass built in, because if you were to breathe the wrong way you could potentially blow it away or even suck it right up.

On April 14, 1865 stage actor and confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln while he watched the play Our American Cousin, from his box seat in Ford’s Theater. Our American Cousin was a play about a boorish American who travels to the UK to collect his inheritance from his hoity-toity relatives. While Booth was not in the play he was very familiar with the play’s three acts, and he knew there was a certain line that always drew laughter. In Act III, the main character Asa Trenchard says to Mrs. Mountchessington:

“Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap.”

Those were the final words that the nation’s 16th president heard. Abraham Lincoln was the first U.S. President to be assassinated. Just five days before, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at the Battle of Appomattox effectively bringing an end to the Civil War.

After the assassination the new Brooks Brothers overcoat Lincoln was wearing and the items from its pockets were handed over to his son Robert Todd Lincoln for safe keeping. Among the relics were a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles, a penknife, a watch fob, a cuff link, a monogrammed handkerchief, and a brown leather wallet. Inside the wallet were eight newspaper clippings and a five-dollar confederate note that featured the image of the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.

For over 70 years the contents stayed with the family until Abraham Lincoln’s granddaughter Mary Lincoln Isham donated them to the Library of Congress in 1937. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards, the contents became lost and forgotten amongst the Library’s millions of items. It wasn’t until Daniel J. Boorstin was sworn-in as the Librarian of Congress in 1976 did the donation turn up. While going through his new office Boorstin found an unopened box in a safe in a closet. It turns out for decades the contents of Lincoln’s pockets were unknowingly residing in the Librarian’s Ceremonial Office.

The Library of Congress receives almost 15,000 items every day through copyright, purchase, donation, or national and international exchange programs and adds about 10,000 of the items to its collection. It’s the largest library in the world with over 24 million books and over 170 million items. But one key fact often goes unnoticed, almost half of the book and serial collections are in languages other than English. The Library of Congress has books in over 470 different languages.

While the Library of Congress’ three main buildings are nestled together on Capitol Hill directly across from the U.S. Capitol and next to the Supreme Court, it also has overseas offices in six countries around the world. In 1962 it opened up it’s Egypt branch in the U.S Embassy in Garden City, Cairo. According to the Library’s Field Director William Kopycki, “The Cairo overseas office has always considered serials, including newspapers, magazines, and academic journals as a key format in its cooperative acquisition program…[it] is for the benefit of both the Library of Congress and other U.S. based academic and research libraries forming what is currently known as the Middle East Cooperative Acquisitions Program.”

In addition to Cairo, the Library of Congress through its Cooperative Acquisitions Program maintains offices in:

Islamabad, Pakistan

Jakarta, Indonesia

Nairobi, Kenya

New Delhi, India

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

According to the Library of Congress, “These offices acquire, catalog, preserve, and distribute library and research materials from countries where such materials are essentially unavailable through conventional acquisitions methods.”

The Library of Congress’ Law Library was established in 1832 and contains the world’s largest collection of legal resources with over 2.6 million volumes. Its scope is comprehensive and it provides foreign law research to countries around the world. In 2002 its collection served as a reminder of the importance of the Library of Congress.

In 1995, the Taliban rose to power in Afghanistan and began instilling their version of Islamic law. Women lost their rights for education and employment, and laws were enforced through executions and amputations. In an effort to gain a tighter grip over the nation the Taliban destroyed most of the country’s laws and regulatory sources and replaced them with its own religious-fundamentalist version.

On September 11, 2001, 19 hijackers took over four commercial airlines and flew them kamikaze style into the World Trade Center and U.S. Pentagon. The passengers of one of the airlines was able to regain control of the aircraft and crashed it in Pennsylvania before it could reach its intended target, the U.S. Capitol. Almost 3,000 people lost their lives. Within days it was determined that the attack was perpetrated by the Saudi exile, Osama bin Laden, and he was hiding in Afghanistan under protection of the Taliban.

On October 7th, 2001, U.S. and British forces launched the invasion of Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and take out Osama bin Laden. Though bin Laden escaped, less than four months after the September 11th attack the Taliban was overthrown and Hamid Karzai was instilled as the interim President of Afghanistan. As Karzai and the local judges began the arduous pursuit of re-instituting the country’s government the Taliban’s prior destruction of legal resources became problematic. In order to restore the rule of law in Afghanistan the previous laws would need to be re-established. Fortunately, within the Library of Congress' millions of law volumes rests the largest collection of Afghanistan’s laws in the world. The Law Library was able to locate a missing section that couldn’t be found elsewhere and help the newly formed government of Afghanistan in its attempt to regain control of their nation.

According to the Library of Congress' website, “The material in the Law Library…has been digitized as part of the Global Legal Information Network (GLIN), a cooperative, not-for-profit federation of government agencies or their designees that contribute national legal information to a database containing statutes, regulations and related legal materials in the vernacular.”