This Day in History: The origins of the Library of Congress

On this day in 1800, President John Adams approves an appropriation of $5,000 to bring to the Capitol “such books as may be necessary for the use of congress.” The appropriation created a library—the original Library of Congress!

This library began with a collection ordered from London, consisting of 740 volumes and three maps. Nearly two years later, Thomas Jefferson would sign a law better defining the role of the Library. Indeed, Jefferson took a keen interest in the library throughout his time in office.

Perhaps this is not surprising? Jefferson would later write to John Adams, “I cannot live without books . . . .”

The law signed by Jefferson established the Librarian of Congress as a presidential appointment. He personally appointed the first two Librarians of Congress and recommended many books for the collection. By 1814, the small library had grown to about 3,000 volumes. And then, unfortunately, the library was burned by the British during the War of 1812. Jefferson swooped in to save the library. He sold his entire personal collection (6,487 volumes) so that it could be used to recreate a new library. James Madison signed the bill that appropriated $23,940 for this purchase.

According to Monticello: “When Jefferson later completed his own physical count of the number of volumes he had in his possession, he found that he had 6,707, or 220 more than had been reported to Congress . . . He did not think it was right to retain the surplus books, nor did he ask for the extra $1,172.50 due to him from Congress.”

Jefferson’s collection was delivered in a caravan of ten wagons. And, despite losing all these books, can you believe that Jefferson rebuilt his personal collection to more than 2,000 volumes by the time of his death in 1826?

The British may have burned the original collection, but, thanks to Jefferson, the Library ended up more than doubling its holdings. It also expanded the number of topics addressed. A library that previously addressed mostly legal, economic, and historical works now also addressed architecture, the arts, science, literature, and geography. Indeed, at about this time, Jefferson wrote that “there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”

Yikes. Don’t you wish there were SOME topics that did not interest congressmen at all?!