Library of Congress

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Library of Congress

The Reading Room in the rotunda of the Library of Congress building, 1901. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
The Reading Room in the rotunda of the Library of Congress building, 1901.

The Library of Congress, located in Washington, D.C., is the world's largest library, with nearly 110 million items in almost every language and format stored on 532 miles of bookshelves. Its collections constitute the world's most comprehensive record of human creativity and knowledge. Founded in 1800 to serve the reference needs of Congress, the library has grown from an original collection of 6,487 books to a current accumulation of more than 16 million books and more than 120 million other items and collections, from ancient Chinese wood-block prints to compact discs.

The Library of Congress was created by Act of April 24, 1800 (2 Stat. 56), which provided for the removal of the seat of government to the new capital city of Washington, D.C. (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania had formerly served as the nation's capital), and for $5,000 "for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress … and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein." The library was housed in the new capitol until August 1814, when British troops invaded Washington, D.C., and burned the capitol building, destroying nearly three thousand volumes of the small congressional library. The first major book collection acquired by Congress was the personal library of former president Thomas Jefferson, purchased in 1815 at a cost of $23,950. In 1851 a second fire destroyed two-thirds of the library's accumulated holdings of 35,000 volumes, including a substantial portion of the Jefferson library. Congress voted a massive appropriation to replace the lost books, and by the end of the Civil War, the collections of the library had grown to 82,000 volumes.The librarian of Congress is appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate. In 1864 President Abraham Lincoln appointed as librarian Ainsworth Rand Spofford, who opened the library to the public and greatly expanded its collections. Spofford successfully advocated a change in the Copyright law so that the library would receive two free copies of every book, map, chart, musical composition, engraving, print, and photograph submitted for copyright. Under subsequent legislation (2 U.S.C.A. §§ 131–168d) the library's acquisitions included free copies of the Congressional Record and of all U.S. statutes, which Spofford parlayed into document exchanges with all foreign nations that had diplomatic relations with the United States.

Soon the Capitol's library rooms, attics, and hallways were filled with the library's growing collections, necessitating construction of the library's first permanent building, the Thomas Jefferson Building, which opened in 1897. The John Adams Building was added by Congress in 1939, and the James Madison Memorial Building in 1980. These three buildings provide nearly 65 acres of floor space.

Supported mainly by appropriations from Congress, the library also uses income derived from funds received from foundations and other private sources and administered by the Library of Congress Trust Fund Board, as well as monetary gifts presented for direct application (2 U.S.C.A. §§ 154–163). Many of the greatest items in the library have come directly from individual U.S. citizens or were purchased with money donated by them. Gifts that have enriched the cultural heritage of the nation include the private papers of President Lincoln from his son Robert Todd Lincoln; rare Stradivarius violins used for public performances; the Lessing J. Rosenwald collection of illustrated books and incunabula (early works of art or industry); Joseph Pennell's contribution of Whistler drawings and letters; and hundreds of thousands of letters and documents from musicians, artists, scientists, writers, and public figures.

Congressional Research Service

The library's first responsibility is service to Congress. One department, the Congressional Research Service (CRS), operates exclusively for the legislative branch of the government. The CRS provides objective, nonpartisan research, analysis, and information to assist Congress in its legislative, oversight, and representative functions.

The CRS evolved from the Legislative Reference Service, a unit developed by a former librarian, Herbert Putnam, whose tenure with the library spanned 40 years. The Legislative Reference Service was developed to prepare indexes, digests, and compilations of law that Congress might need, but it quickly became a specialized reference unit for information transfer and research.

The CRS mandate has grown over the years in response to the increasing scope of public policy issues on the congressional agenda. The service answers more than 500,000 requests for research annually. Its staff anticipates congressional inquiries and provides timely and objective information and analyses in response to those inquiries at every stage of the legislative process and in an interdisciplinary manner. The CRS also creates and maintains a number of specialized reading lists for members of Congress and their staffs and disseminates other materials of interest. Finally, it maintains the parts of the Library of Congress's automated information system that cover legislative matters, including digests of all public bills and briefing papers on major legislative issues. The CRS director, assisted by a management team, oversees and coordinates the work of seven research divisions, which span a range of public policy subjects and disciplines.


The library's extensive collections include books, serials, and pamphlets on every subject, in a multitude of languages, and in various formats including map, photograph, manuscript, motion picture, and sound recording. Among them are the most comprehensive collections of Chinese, Japanese, and Russian language books outside Asia and the former Soviet Union; volumes relating to science and to U.S. and foreign law; the world's largest collection of published aeronautical literature; and the most extensive collection of incunabula in the Western Hemisphere.

The manuscript collections, containing about 46 million items, relate to manifold aspects of U.S. history and civilization and include the personal papers of most presidents, from George Washington to Calvin Coolidge, as well as papers of people from many diverse arenas, such as Margaret Mead, Sigmund Freud, henry kissinger, Thurgood Marshall, and thousands of others.

The library houses a perfect copy of the Gutenberg Bible, one of three such copies in the world. It also contains the oldest written material, a Sumerian cuneiform tablet dating from 2040 b.c.; the earliest known copyrighted motion picture, Fred Ott's Sneeze, copyrighted by Thomas Edison in 1893; and a book so small that it requires a needle to turn the pages. The musical collections contain volumes and pieces, in manuscript and published form, from classic works to the newest popular compositions. Other materials available for research include maps and views; photographic records from the daguerreotype to the latest news photo; musical recordings; speeches and poetry readings; prints, drawings, and posters; government documents, newspapers, and periodicals from all over the world; and motion pictures, microfilms, and audiotapes and videotapes.


Since 1870 the Library of Congress has been responsible for copyrights registered by the U.S. Copyright Office, located in the Madison Building (Acts of July 8, 1870 [16 Stat. 212–217]; February 19, 1897 [29 Stat. 545, codified as amended at 2 U.S.C.A. 131 (1997)]; October 19, 1976 [90 Stat. 2541, codified as amended at 2 U.S.C.A. 170 (1997)]). The Copyright Office has handled more than 20 million copyright registrations and transfers and processes 600,000 new registrations annually. All copyrightable works, whether published or unpublished, are subject to a system of statutory protection that gives the copyright owner certain exclusive rights, including the right to reproduce the work and distribute it to the public by sale, rental, lease, or lending. Works of authorship include books; periodicals; computer programs; musical compositions; song lyrics; dramas and dramatico-musical compositions; pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works; architectural works; pantomimes and choreographic works; sound recordings; motion pictures; and other audiovisual works.

American Folklife Center

The American Folklife Center was established in the Library of Congress by Act of January 2, 1976 (20 U.S.C.A. § 2102 et seq.). Its function is to coordinate and carry out federal and nonfederal programs to support, preserve, and present American folklife through activities such as receiving and maintaining folklife collections, scholarly research, field projects, performances and exhibitions, festivals, workshops, publications, and audiovisual presentations. The center is the national repository for folk-related recordings, manuscripts, and other unpublished materials. Its reading room contains over 3,500 books and periodicals; a sizable collection of magazines, newsletters, unpublished theses, and dissertations; field notes; and many textual and musical transcriptions and recordings. The center also administers the Federal Cylinder Project, which is charged with preserving and disseminating music and oral traditions recorded on wax cylinders dating from the late 1800s to the early 1940s. A cultural conservation study was developed at the center in cooperation with the Interior Department pursuant to congressional mandate. Various conferences, workshops, and symposia are given throughout the year, and a series of outdoor concerts of traditional music are scheduled monthly at the library, from April to September.

Center for the Book

The Center for the Book was established in the Library of Congress by Act of October 17, 1977 (2 U.S.C.A. § 171 et seq.), to stimulate public interest in books, reading, and libraries and to encourage the study of books and print culture. The center is a catalyst for promoting and exploring the vital role of books, reading, and libraries throughout the world. Since 1984, at least 29 states have established statewide book centers that are affiliated with this national center.

National Preservation Program

To preserve its collections, the library uses the full range of traditional methods of conservation and binding as well as newer technologies such as the deacidification of paper and the digitization of original materials. These measures include maintaining materials in the proper environment, ensuring the proper care and handling of the collections, and stabilizing fragile and rare materials by placing them in acid-free containers to protect them from further deterioration. Research on long-standing preservation problems is conducted by the library's Preservation Research and Testing Office.

The National Film Preservation Board, established by the National Film Preservation Act of 1992 (2 U.S.C.A. § 179b), serves as a public advisory group to the librarian of Congress. The board consists of 36 members and alternates representing many parts of the diverse U.S. film industry, archives, scholars, and others. As its primary mission, the board works to ensure the survival, conservation, and increased public availability of the U. S. film heritage. This mission includes advising the librarian on the annual selection of films to the National Film Registry and counseling the librarian on the development and implementation of the national film preservation plan.

Extension of Service

The Library of Congress extends its service through an interlibrary loan system; photoduplication of books, manuscripts, maps, newspapers, and prints in its collections; a centralized cataloging program whereby the library acquires material published all over the world as well as material from other libraries and from U.S. publishers; and the development of general schemes of classification (the Library of Congress classification for law and the Dewey decimal system), subject headings, and cataloging, embracing the entire field of printed matter.

The library also provides for the preparation of bibliographic lists responsive to the needs of government and research; the maintenance and publication of the National Union catalogs and other cooperative publications; the publication of catalogs, bibliographic guides, and texts of original manuscripts and rare books; the circulation in traveling exhibitions of items from the library's collections; and the provision of books in Braille, talking book records, and books on tape. In addition, the library employs an optical disk system that supplies articles on public policy to Congress and provides research and analytical services on a fee-for-service basis to the executive and judicial branches.

Users outside the library can gain free access to its online catalog of files through the Internet. Major exhibitions of the library are available online, as are selected prints and photographs, historic films, and political speeches. Internet sites include the Library of Congress World Wide Web (<>); THOMAS, an important legislative service containing a searchable full text of the Congressional Record, texts of recent bills, and congressional committee information (<>); American Memory Historical Collections, which includes documents, images, and other information about U.S. history (<>); Global Gateway, which provides presentations regarding world culture and resources (<>); pointers to external Internet resources including extensive international, national, state, and local government information; and an international electronic library of resources arranged by Library of Congress subject headings. The Library of Congress also contributes to the National Digital Library more than 40 million bibliographic records, summaries of congressional bills, copyright registrations, bibliographies and research guides, summaries of foreign laws, an index of Southeast Asian POW-MIA documents, selections from the library's unique historical collections, and more.

Reference Resources

Admission to the various research facilities of the library is free, and no introduction or credentials are required for persons over high school age. A photo identification and current address are required for the library's reading rooms and collections, and additional requirements apply for entry into certain collections like those of the Manuscript Division, Rare Book, and Special Collections Division, and Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division. Priority is given to inquiries pertaining to the library's holdings of special materials or to subjects in which its resources are unique. Demands for service to Congress and federal agencies have increased, and thus reference service to others through correspondence is limited.

Further readings

Chan, Lois Mai. 1998. "Still Robust at 100: A Century of LC Subject Headings." LC Information Bulletin. Available online at <> (accessed July 28, 2003).

Cole, John Young. 1993. Jefferson's Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress.

Library of Congress. Available online at <> (accessed July 28, 2003).

——. 1996. Facts about the Library of Congress. March.

——. 1996. Twenty-five Questions Most Frequently Asked by Visitors. May.

——. Public Affairs Office. 1993. Background and History. September.

U.S. Government Manual Website. Available online at <> (accessed November 10, 2003).


Copyright; Copyright, International.

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