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Inside the Library of Congress

A senior cataloger and longtime docent at the Library of Congress, shares a personal perspective on the Library’s historic buildings and collections. Kurt Maier, Senior Cataloger in the History and Literature Cataloging Division and longtime docent, is author of “Library of Congress: A Tour in Words and Pictures.”

The Library of Congress in the Capitol, 1800-1897

Photo: Main Library of Congress building at the start of the 20th century.

The law creating the Library of Congress, approved on April 24, 1800, called for its books to be housed in “a suitable apartment” in the Capitol. In 1800 only the north wing of the Capitol was finished. The books brought by Congress from Philadelphia and the new books acquired for the Library were placed in the office of the Clerk of the Senate. During 1801, a temporary structure was built for the use of the House of Representatives, and the act of January 26, 1802, which established the rules and procedures “concerning the Library for the use of both Houses of Congress,” provided for the move of the Library into the room in the north wing formerly occupied by the House. Here the Library remained until December 1805.

The law established the presidentially appointed post of Librarian of Congress and a Joint Committee on the Library to regulate and oversee the Library, as well as giving the president and vice president the ability to borrow books.   The Library of Congress was destroyed in August 1814, when invading British troops set fire to the Capitol building and the small library of 3,000 volumes within.

Within a month, former President Jefferson offered his personal library as a replacement. Jefferson had spent 50 years accumulating a wide variety of books, including ones in foreign languages and volumes of philosophyscienceliterature, and other topics not normally viewed as part of a legislative library, such as cookbooks, writing that, “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.” In January 1815, Congress accepted Jefferson’s offer, appropriating $23,950 for his 6,487 books.

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