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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

The Library of Congress

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Library of Congress is our national library, even though its original mission outlined upon its establishment in 1800 was to contain “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress.”


Housed in the U.S. Capitol Building until 1897, the library moved into its glorious new building across 1st Street from the Capitol.


In 1980, that historic structure was renamed the “Jefferson Building” to honor our 3rd President of the United States, and in many ways, the Father of our Library of Congress.


It was also a practical move, as the Library of Congress was just occupying the new Madison Building, and had for some years utilized its Adams Building to house the growing collection.


Today, the Library of Congress has over 144 million items in its collection, including manuscripts, films, maps, sheet music and sound recordings.


The 1800 Library of Congress was located in the U.S. Capitol Building, and quickly grew as a collection to serve the needs of Congress.


In 1814, the entire collection was destroyed by fire when the British invaded Washington, D.C. and burned the Capitol Building.


Former President Jefferson held what was likely the largest personal library in North America at the time, and he immediately offered to sell his collection of 6,487 volumes to the Congress to replace the original congressional library lost in the fire.


Congress deliberated the offer for several months, but there were objections to some of the controversial authors in his collection.  The “Annals of Congress” stated that “the objections to the purchase were generally its extent, the cost of the purchase, the nature of its selection, embracing too many works in foreign languages, some of too philosophical a character, and some otherwise objectionable.”


Specific note was taken of the works of Voltaire and Callender’s “Prospect Before Us.”  His library also contained what has become known as “The Jefferson Bible,” a King James Version rewritten by Jefferson, as well as a copy of “The Koran.”


Despite the objections, Congress paid Jefferson $ 23,950 for his library, which arrived from his Monticello home in 1815.  Jefferson was in serious financial straits in his retirement, and the sale of his library was helpful to his Estate in his final years.


Jefferson had assembled his library, and prepared a catalogue of holdings of the collection based on Francis Bacon’s “systematic of men” for organizing books.  (The Dewey Decimal classification was still 75 years away)


The library was assembled into the categories of Memory, Reason, and Imagination, and then subdivided into 44 divisions for more specific topics.


Reading his catalogue in 2011 is nothing but “incredible,” that one man could have developed such a library with such a broad spectrum of topics and interests.


Jefferson could read several foreign languages, and his collection reflected that fact.  Librarian of Congress George Watterston was amazed at the collection that Jefferson had provided, as well as the Catalogue and organization.


Jefferson’s original Catalogue is lost to time, but an 1823 update was found and returned to the Library of Congress in 1917.


Since 2000, the Library of Congress has been researching the Jefferson Collection and has a permanent display of original and replacement titles.


Thomas Jefferson was likely one of the most learned of our founding Fathers, with his mark on so many of our founding documents.


Of course, we reside in one of the 27 counties in the U.S. named for Thomas Jefferson.


Next week, what has happened to the original Jefferson collection since 1815.