Jefferson's Legacy: The Functions of the Library of Congress, Past and Present

by John Y. Cole
Director, Center for the Book
Library of Congress
Washington, DC 20540-8200

The Library of Congress occupies a unique place in American civilization. Established as a legislative library in 1800, it grew into a national institution in the nineteenth century and, since World War II, has become an international resource of unparalleled dimension.

In 1950, the sesquicentennial year of the Library of Congress, the eminent librarian S.R. Ranganathan paid the Library and the U.S. Congress an unusual tribute:

"The institution serving as the national library of the United States is perhaps more fortunate than its predecessors in other countries. It has the Congress as its godfather. . . This stroke of good fortune has made it perhaps the most influential of all the national libraries of the world."1

Forty years later, the Library built by the American Congress has achieved an even greater degree of prominence. Since 1950 the size of its collections and its staff have tripled and its annual appropriation has soared from $9 million to $300 million. With collections totaling over 90 million items in most formats, subjects, and languages, a staff of 4,800 persons, and services unmatched in scope by any other research library, the Library of Congress is one of the leading cultural institutions of the world.2

The diversity of the Library of Congress, is startling. It is 1) a legislative library and the major research arm for the U.S. Congress; 2) the copyright agency of the United States; 3) a public institution open without restriction to everyone over high school age; 4) a government library that serves executive agencies and the judiciary; 5) a national library for the blind and physically handicapped; 6) the world's largest producer of bibliographic data; and 7) an international institution that collects research materials from throughout the world in more than 400 languages and operates seven overseas acquisitions offices. Its Chinese, Japanese, and Russian collections are the largest outside of these countries and its Arabic collections are the largest outside of Egypt.

In order to perform these functions, the Library of Congress occupies three massive structures on Capitol Hill, near the U.S. Capitol. The Jefferson Building, opened in 1897, is a grand monument to civilization, culture, and American achievement. The austere Adams Building, opened in 1938, functions primarily as a giant bookstack for over 12 million of the Library's approximately 20 million books and pamphlets. The modern Madison Building, completed in 1980, with its 2.5 million square feet of space, is by far the largest structure. The Library operates 22 reading rooms in these three buildings. Over two million researchers, scholars, and tourists visit the Library of Congress each year.

Since its creation, the Library of Congress has been part of the legislative branch of the American government, and even though it is recognized as the de facto national library of the United States, it is not officially designated as a national library. Yet it performs most of the functions performed by most national libraries and has become a symbol of American democracy and faith in the power of learning.

How did a library established by the legislature for its own use become such an ambitious, multi-purpose institution? Two points are clear: the expansion of the Library's functions derives from the expansion of its collections; and the growth of the institution is tied to the growth and ambitions of the entire American nation. The development of the Library of Congress cannot be separated from the history of the nation it serves. Nor can it be separated from the aspirations and achievements of three individuals who shaped the institution and its functions: Thomas Jefferson, Ainsworth Rand Spofford, and Herbert Putnam.

The Library of Congress was established as the American legislature prepared to move from Philadelphia to the new capital city of Washington. On April 24, 1800, President John Adams approved legislation that appropriated $5,000 to purchase "such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress." The first books, ordered from London, arrived in 1801 and were stored in the U.S. Capitol, the Library's first home. On January 26, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson approved the first law defining the role and functions of the new institution. This measure created the post of Librarian of Congress and gave Congress, through a Joint Committee on the Library, the authority to establish the Library's rules and regulations. From the beginning, however, the institution was more than a legislative library, for the 1802 law made the appointment of the Librarian of Congress a presidential responsibility. It also permitted the President and Vice President to borrow books, a privilege that, in the next two decades, was extended to the judiciary and to most government agencies.

Three developments in the Library's early history permanently established the institution's national roots. First, the Library of Congress was created by the national legislature, which took direct responsibility for its operation. Secondly, the Library of Congress served as the first library of the American government. Finally, in 1815, the scope of the Library's collection was permanently expanded. The philosophy and ideals of the Library's principal founder, Thomas Jefferson (1732-1826), were the key to this transformation.

Bibliophile and book collector extraordinaire, Jefferson took a keen interest in the Library and its collection while he was President of the United States from 1801 to 1809. Throughout his presidency, he personally recommended books for the Library, and he appointed the first two Librarians of Congress. In 1814 the British army invaded Washington and burned the Capitol, including the 3,000-volume Library of Congress. By then retired to Monticello, Jefferson offered to sell his personal library to the Congress to "recommence" its library. The purchase was approved in 1815, doubling the size of the Library of Congress and, more significantly, expanding it beyond the scope of a legislative library devoted primarily to legal, economic, and historical works.

Jefferson's library reflected his wide-ranging interests in subjects such as architecture, science, geography, and literature. It included books in French, German, Latin, Greek, and one three-volume statistical work in Russian. Jefferson believed that a democratic legislature needed information on all subjects and in many languages in order to do its job. Anticipating the argument that his collection might be too comprehensive for use by a legislative body, he argued that there was "no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer."3

The acquisition by Congress of Jefferson's library forever broadened the scope of the Library of Congress and provided the base for the expansion of the Library's functions. The Jeffersonian concept of universality is of fundamental importance as both the philosophy and the rationale behind the comprehensive collecting policies of today's Library of Congress.

Congressman who favored the purchase of Jefferson's library argued that it would make "a most admirable substratum for a National Library," expressing a growing cultural nationalism in the United States. Many Americans, aware of the cultural dependence of the United States on Europe, were anxious that their country establish its own traditions and institutions. For example, an editorial in the July 15, 1815 (Washington, D.C.) daily National Intelligencer pointed out: "In all civilized nations of Europe there are national libraries. . . In a country of such general intelligence as this, the Congressional or National Library of the United States (should) become the great repository of the literature of the world."

Yet in the early 1850's it appeared that the Smithsonian Institution might become the American national library. Its talented and aggressive librarian, Charles Coffin Jewett, tried to move the institution in that direction and turn it into a national bibliographical center as well. Jewett's efforts were opposed, however, by Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry, who insisted that the Smithsonian focus its activities on scientific research and publication. In fact, the Secretary favored the eventual development of a national library at the Library of Congress, which he viewed as the appropriate foundation for "a collection of books worthy of a Government whose perpetuity principally depends on the intelligence of the people." On July 10, 1854, Henry dismissed Jewett, ending any possibility that the Smithsonian might become the national library. Moreover, 12 years later Henry was to transfer the entire 40,000-volume library of the Smithsonian Institution to the Library of Congress.

In all, the Library of Congress suffered difficult times during the 1850's. In the first place, the growing intersectional rivalry between North and South hindered the strengthening of any government institution. Furthermore, in late 1851 the most serious fire in the Library's history destroyed about two-thirds of its 55,000 volumes, including two-thirds of Jefferson's library. Congress responded quickly and generously: in 1852 a total of $168,700 was appropriated to restore the Library's rooms in the Capitol and to replace the lost books. But the books were to be replaced only, with no particular intention of supplementing or expanding the collection. This policy reflected the conservative philosophy of Senator James A. Pearce of Maryland, the chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library, who favored keeping a strict limit on the Library's activities. In fact, a few years later, the Library lost two of its most important governmental functions. On January 28, 1857, a joint resolution transferred responsibility for the distribution of public documents to the Bureau of the Interior, and responsibility for the international exchange of books and documents on behalf of the U.S. government was shifted to the Department of State. Back in 1846, when the Smithsonian Institution was founded, both the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress were designated repositories for U.S. copyright deposits. On February 5, 1859, with the consent of Library officials, this law was repealed.

Two years later, a new President replaced Librarian Meehan. President Lincoln's choice was John G. Stephenson, an Indiana physician who served as Librarian of Congress until the end of 1864. As the Civil War came to a close, the Library had a total staff of seven and a mediocre collection of only 80,000 volumes; nonetheless the "national character" of its origins and first 64 years was indisputable.

The individual responsible for transforming the Library of Congress into an institution of national significance was Ainsworth Rand Spofford, a former Cincinnati bookseller and journalist who served as Librarian of Congress from 1865 until 1897. Spofford accomplished this task by permanently linking the legislative and national functions of the Library, first in practice and then, through the 1897 reorganization of the Library, in law. He provided his successors as Librarian with four essential prerequisites for the development of an American national library: (1) firm congressional support for the notion of the Library of Congress as both a legislative and a national library; (2) the beginning of a comprehensive collection of Americana; (3) a magnificent new building, itself a national monument; and (4) a strong and independent office of Librarian of Congress. It was Spofford who had the interest, skill, and perseverance to capitalize on the Library of Congress' claim to a national role. Each Librarian of Congress since Spofford has shaped the institution in a different manner, but none has wavered from Spofford's assertion that the Library was both a legislative and a national library.

Spofford revived the idea of an American national library, which had been languishing since Jewett's departure from the Smithsonian in 1854, and convinced first the Joint Committee on the Library and then the Congress itself that the Library of Congress was also a national institution. Spofford and Jewett shared several ideas relating to a national library; in particular, both recognized the importance of copyright deposit in developing a comprehensive collection of a nation's literature. Yet there was a major difference in their views. Spofford never envisioned the Library of Congress as the center of a network of American libraries, a focal point for providing other libraries with cataloging and bibliographic services. Instead, he viewed it, in the European model, as a unique, independent institution--a single, comprehensive collection of national literature to be used both by Congressmen and by the American people. Congress needed such a collection because, as Spofford paraphrased Jefferson, "there is almost no work, within the vast range of literature and science, which may not at some time prove useful to the legislature of a great nation." It was imperative, he felt, that such a great national collection be shared with all citizens, for the United States was "a Republic which rests upon the popular intelligence."4

Immediately after the Civil War, American society began a rapid transformation; one of the major changes was the expansion of the federal government. Spofford took full advantage of the favorable political and cultural climate, and the increasing national confidence, to promote the Library's expansion. He always believed that the Library of Congress was the national library and he used every conceivable argument to convince others.

In the first years of his administration Spofford obtained congressional approval of six laws or resolutions that ensured a national role for the Library of Congress. The legislative acts were:

  1. an appropriation providing for the expansion of the Library in the Capitol building, approved in early 1865;
  2. the copyright amendment of 1865, which once again brought copyright deposits into the Library's collections;
  3. the Smithsonian deposit of 1866, whereby the entire library of the Smithsonian Institution, a collection especially strong in scientific materials, was transferred to the Library;
  4. the 1867 purchase, for $100,000, of the private library of historian and archivist Peter Force, establishing the foundation of the Library's Americana and incunabula collections;
  5. the international exchange resolution of 1867, providing for the development of the Library's collection of foreign public documents; and
  6. the copyright act of 1870, which centralized all copyright registration and deposit activities at the Library.

Finally, in his 1872 annual report, Spofford presented a plan for a separate Library of Congress building, initiating an endeavor that soon dominated his librarianship.

Spofford's most impressive collection-building feat, and certainly the one that had the most far-reaching significance for the Library, was the centralization of all U.S. copyright deposit and registration activities at the Library in 1870. The copyright law ensured the continuing development of the Americana collections, for it stipulated that two copies of every book, pamphlet, map, print, and piece of music registered for copyright in the United States be deposited in the Library. This act also eventually forced the construction of a separate Library building, for by 1875 all shelf space was exhausted and the books, "from sheer force of necessity," were being "piled on the floor in all directions."

In the long struggle for a separate Library building, Spofford enlisted the support of many powerful public figures: Congressmen, cultural leaders, journalists, and even Presidents. Moreover, their speeches and statements usually endorsed not only a separate building but also the concept of the Library of Congress as a national library.

To Spofford also goes primary credit for establishing the Library's tradition of broad public service. In 1865 he extended the hours of service, so that the Library was open every weekday all year. In 1869 he began advocating evening hours of opening, but this innovation was not approved by Congress until 1898. Finally, in 1870 Spofford reinstated the earlier policy of lending books directly to the public if an appropriate sum was left on deposit, a procedure that remained in effect until 1894, when preparations were started for the move into the new Library building.

In 1896, just before the actual move, the Joint Library Committee held hearings about "the condition" of the Library and its possible reorganization. The hearings provided an occasion for a detailed examination of the Library's history and present functions, furnished by Librarian Spofford, as well as for a review of what new functions the Library might perform once it occupied the spacious new building. The American Library Association sent six witnesses, including future Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam from the Boston Public Library and Melvil Dewey from the New York State Library. Congressmen listened with great interest to the testimony of Putnam and Dewey, who argued that the national services of the Library should be greatly expanded. Dewey felt that the Library of Congress now had the opportunity to act as a true national library, which he defined as "a center to which the libraries of the whole country can turn for inspiration, guidance, and practical help, which can be rendered so economically and efficiently in no other possible way."5

Testimony at the 1896 hearings greatly influenced the reorganization of the Library, which was incorporated into the Legislative Appropriations Act approved February 19, 1897, and became effective on July 1, 1897. In accordance with the recommendations of Spofford, Putnam, Dewey, and the other officials who testified, all phases of the Library's activities were expanded. The size of the staff was increased from 42 to 108, and separate administrative units for copyright, law, cataloging, periodicals, maps, manuscripts, music, and graphic arts were established. During his 32 years in office, and with the consent of the Joint Library Committee, Librarian Spofford had assumed full responsibility for directing the Library's affairs. This authority formally passed to the office of Librarian of Congress in the 1897 reorganization, for the Librarian explicitly was assigned sole responsibility for making the "rules and regulations for the government" of the Library. The same reorganization act stipulated that the President's appointment of a Librarian of Congress thereafter was to be approved by the Senate.

President McKinley appointed a new Librarian of Congress to supervise the move from the Capitol and implement the new reorganization. He was John Russell Young, who held office from July 1, 1897, until his death on January 17, 1899. A journalist and former diplomat, Young was a skilled administrator who worked hard to strengthen both the comprehensiveness of the collections and the scope of the services provided to Congress. In February 1898, for example, he sent a letter to U.S. diplomatic and consular representatives throughout the world, asking them to send "to the national library" newspapers, serials, pamphlets, manuscripts, broadsides, "documents illustrative of the history of those various nationalities now coming to our shores to blend into our national life," and many other categories of research materials, broadly summarized as "whatever, in a word, would add to the sum of human knowledge." By the end of 1898, books and documents had arrived from 11 legations and seven consulates.

Young also inaugurated what today is one of the Library's best known national activities, library service for the blind. In November of 1897 the Library began a program of daily readings for the blind in a special "pavilion for the blind" complete with its own library. In 1913 Congress directed the American Printing House for the Blind to begin depositing embossed books in the Library, and in 1931 a separate appropriation was authorized for providing "books for the use of adult blind residents of the United States."

Young's successor, Herbert Putnam, served as Librarian of Congress for 40 years, from 1899 to 1939. The first experienced professional librarian to hold the past, Putnam was able to establish a working partnership between the Library of Congress and the American library movement. In fact, three years after Putnam had taken office, the Library of Congress was the leader among American libraries. This turn of events was in accord with Putnam's view of the proper role of a national library, a view expressed at the 1896 hearings concerning the Library of Congress. Rather than serving primarily as a great national accumulation of books, a national library should, he felt, actively serve other libraries. Building upon the tradition created by Spofford, Putnam established a systematic program of widespread public service.

In the quarter century before Putnam took office, a new structure of scientific and scholarly activity had evolved in the United States. Professional schools and new universities offering graduate work were established; numerous professional associations and societies came into existence; and the federal government became an active supporter of education, research, and scientific activity. By 1900, as Arthur Bestor has pointed out, the age of the great library had arrived in America; its characteristics included huge bookstacks, scientific cataloging and classification, and full-time professional staffs.6 By the end of 1901 the Library of Congress, the first American library to reach one million volumes, had become part of this new pattern of intellectual activity, for it had started organizing its enormous collections of recorded knowledge for public service.

Putnam's actions in 1901 were imaginative and decisive and were approved by both the Joint Library Committee and the professional library community. In that year the first volume of a completely new classification scheme, based on the Library's own collections, was published; access to the Library was extended to "scientific investigators and duly qualified individuals" throughout the United States; an interlibrary loan service was inaugurated; the sale and distribution of Library of Congress printed catalog cards began; the equivalent of a national union catalog was started; and finally, appended to the 1901 annual report was a 200-page manual describing the organization, facilities, collections, and operations of the Library--a description that set high standards for all other libraries.

Librarian Putnam's sharing of the Library's "bibliographic apparatus" helped shape and systematize American scholarship and librarianship and propelled the Library into a position of leadership among the world's research institutions.7 The development of the Library's collections into a nationally useful resource was a key Putnam goal. To aid historical research, he felt that the national library "should be able to offer original sources." Material pertinent to a certain region "should be left to the local library having a particular duty to that locality," but "material relating to the country as a whole" should come to the Library of Congress.8 In 1903 Putnam persuaded his friend and supporter, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, to issue an executive order that transferred the papers of most of the nation's founders (including those of Jefferson) from the State Department archives to the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress--the beginning of the Library's presidential papers collection, which today includes the papers of the first twenty-three Presidents.

The Librarian was especially far-sighted in acquiring research materials about other countries and cultures. In 1904 he purchased a 4,000-volume library of Indica, explaining in the Library's annual report that he "could not ignore the opportunity to acquire a unique collection which scholarship thought worthy of prolonged, scientific, and enthusiastic research, even though the immediate use of such a collection may prove meager." In 1906 he boldly acquired the 80,000-volume private library of Russian literature owned by G.V. Yudin of Siberia, even sending a staff member to Russia to supervise the packing and shipping of the books. Large and important collections of Hebraica, Chinese, and Japanese books were also acquired.

A traditional function, legislative support, was strengthened in 1914 when a separate Legislative Reference Service was established. Putnam established new functions as well; many of them resulted from the creation of the Library of Congress Trust Fund Board in 1925. This act enabled the Library to accept gifts and bequests from private citizens. This new private funding, which supplemented the annual government appropriation, allowed the Library to hold chamber music concerts, to establish a series of consultantships for scholars, to purchase new material, and in general, as Putnam stated, in his 1925 annual report, to "do for American scholarship and cultivation what is not likely to be done by other agencies." The success of the Trust Fund Board was of crucial importance to the Librarian's vision of the nationalization of the Library's collections and services.

The role of the Library of Congress as a symbol of American democracy was enhanced by Putnam in 1921 when the nation's two most precious documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, were transferred to the Library from the State Department. In 1924 the documents went on permanent public display in a specially-designed "Shrine" in the Library's Great Hall. Calvin Coolidge, the President of the United States, and many other dignitaries took place in the ceremony, but there were no speeches, only the singing of two stanzas of "America." (The Library transferred both documents to the National Archives in 1952.) In 1931, in his book The Epic of America, historian James Truslow Adams paid tribute to the Library of Congress "as a symbol of what democracy can accomplish on its own behalf," noting that "anyone who has used the great collections of Europe, with their restrictions and red tape and difficulty of access, praises God for democracy when he enters the stacks of the Library of Congress."9

The Library of Congress as a democratic institution and repository of American cultural traditions was a concept that captured the imagination of Putnam's successor, writer and poet Archibald MacLeish. Appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939, MacLeish served as Librarian of Congress until the end of 1944, when he became assistant secretary of state. An advocate of U.S. involvement in World War II, MacLeish urged all librarians to "become active and not passive agents of the democratic process." In 1941, the Library set aside a "democracy alcove" containing books and writings about American democracy in the Main Reading Room. MacLeish also was responsible for a major administrative reorganization and for articulating the Jeffersonian rationale as it applied to foreign materials, asserting, in his 1940 annual report, that the Library should acquire the "written records of those societies and peoples whose experience is of most immediate concern to the people of the United States." Indeed, World War II's most important effect on the Library was to stimulate further development of its collections about other nations.

In this vein, political scientist Luther H. Evans, who served as Librarian of Congress from 1945 to 1953, felt that the major lesson of World War II was that "however, large our collections may now be, they are pitifully and tragically small in comparison with the demands of the nation." He described the need for larger collections of research materials about foreign countries in practical, patriotic terms, noting that during the war, while weather data on the Himalayas from the Library's collections helped the Air Force, "the want of early issues of the Voelkische Beobachter prevented the first auguries of Naziism."

Through the leadership of Luther Evans, the Library of Congress became committed to international library and cultural cooperation.10 The Library of Congress Mission in Europe, organized by Evans and his Library of Congress colleague Verner W. Clapp in 1945, acquired European publications for the Library and for other American libraries. The Library soon initiated automatic purchase agreements (blanket orders) with foreign dealers around the world, and greatly expanded its agreements for the international exchange of official publications. It organized a reference library in San Francisco in 1945 to assist the participants in the meeting that established the United Nations. In 1947, a Library of Congress Mission to Japan, headed by Clapp, provided advice for the establishment of the National Diet Library.

Evans' successor as Librarian of Congress was L. Quincy Mumford, who was director of the Cleveland Public Library in 1954 when he was nominated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eventually Mumford guided the Library through its greatest period of national and international expansion. In the 1960's the Library of Congress benefited from increased Federal funding for education, libraries and research. Most dramatic was the growth of the foreign acquisitions program, an expansion based on Evans' achievements a decade earlier. In 1958 the Library was authorized by Congress to acquire books by using U.S.-owned foreign currency under the terms of the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954 (Public Law 480). The first appropriation for this purpose was made in 1961, enabling the Library to establish acquisitions centers in New Delhi and Cairo to purchase publications and distribute them to research libraries throughout the United States. This was only the first step, however.

In 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson approved the Higher Education Act of 1965. Title IIC of the new law had great significance for the Library of Congress and for academic and research libraries. It authorized the Office of Education to transfer funds to the Library of Congress for the ambitious purposes of acquiring, insofar as possible, all current library materials of value to scholarship published throughout the world, and of providing cataloging information for these materials promptly after they had been received. This law came closer than any other legislation affecting the Library of Congress to making Jefferson's concept of comprehensiveness part of the Library's official mandate. The new effort was christened the National Program for Acquisitions and Cataloging (NPAC). The first NPAC office was opened in London in 1966. By 1971, the Library of Congress had 13 overseas offices.

The development of international bibliographical standards was now recognized as an important concern. The crucial development had taken place at the Library of Congress in the mid-1960s: the creation of the Library of Congress MARC (Machine Readable Cataloging) format for communicating bibliographic data in machine-readable form. This new capability for converting, maintaining, and distributing bibliographic information soon became the standard format for sharing data about books and other research materials. The possibility of worldwide application was immediately recognized, and the MARC format structure became an official national standard in 1971 and an international standard in 1973.

The Mumford administration, a period of rapid growth, was also the last time there has been serious public debate about the dual legislative and national roles of the Library of Congress. The Library of Congress has played a leadership role in the American library community since 1901; however, its first responsibility, as part of the legislative branch of the American government, always has been to support the reference and research needs of the American national legislature. In spite of the impressive list of "national library functions" it performs, the Library of Congress is not the official National Library of the United States or even necessarily the center of American library and information activities. It does not, for example, play the powerful national role that the British Library has assumed under the terms of the 1972 British Library Act.

In 1962, at the request of Senator Claiborne Pell of the Joint Library Committee, Douglas Bryant of the Harvard University Library prepared a memorandum on "what the Library of Congress does and ought to do for the Government and the Nation generally." Bryant urged further expansion of the Library's national activities and services, proposals endorsed by many professional librarians, and suggested several organizational changes. Mumford replied to the Bryant memorandum in his 1962 annual report, strongly defending the Library's position in the legislative branch and reiterating his opposition to changing or altering the Library's name to reflect its national role: "The Library of Congress is a venerable institution, with a proud history, and to change its name would do unspeakable violence to tradition." The Librarian asserted that "on the question of being the national library the substance is more important than the form," and pointed out that, while fulfilling its responsibilities to the legislature, the Library of Congress also performed "more national library functions than any other national library in the world."

The debate continued through the decade, however. For example, in Libraries at Large (1967), a resource book based on materials gathered for the new National Advisory Commission on Libraries, an article by "the Staff of the Library of Congress" described an ambitious set of programs that the Library of Congress "might expand or undertake if it were formally recognized as the National Library and acted accordingly."11 But the fiscal retrenchments of the 1970s and a reemphasis of the Library's legislative services under the provisions of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 soon rendered any increased national library aspirations impractical.

Librarian Mumford retired in 1974. The American Library Association suggested the names of several professional librarians for the job, but President Gerald R. Ford nominated historian Daniel J. Boorstin, who had been director of the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History. Boorstin had wide support in Congress, but his nomination was opposed by the American Library Association for the same reason it had opposed MacLeish's in 1939: the nominee had no experience in administering a library. Boorstin was confirmed without debate, however. He was sworn in on November 12, 1975, in a ceremony in the Library's Great Hall that signaled the new Librarian's sense of tradition. The oath of office, taken on a Bible from the Jefferson collection, was administered by Carl Albert, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, with President Gerald R. Ford and Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller participating in the ceremony.

Boorstin immediately faced two major challenges: the need to review the Library's organization and functions and the lack of space for both collections and staff. His response to the first was the creation of a Task Force on Goals, Organization, and Planning, a staff group which conducted, with help from outside advisors, a one-year review of the Library and its role. Many of the Task Force's recommendations were incorporated into a subsequent reorganization. The move into the Library's James Madison Memorial Building, which began in 1980 and was completed in 1982, relieved administrative as well as physical pressures, and enabled Librarian Boorstin to focus on what he deemed most important: the strengthening of the Library's ties with Congress, and the development of new relationships between the Library and scholars, authors, publishers, cultural leaders, and the business community.

The Library of Congress grew steadily during Boorstin's administration, with its annual appropriation increasing from $116 million to over $250 million. Like MacLeish, Boorstin relied heavily on his professional staff in technical areas such as cataloging, automation, and library preservation. But he took a keen personal interest in collection development; in copyright; in book and reading promotion; in the symbolic role of the Library of Congress in American life; and in the Library as "the world's greatest Multi-Media Encyclopedia." Boorstin's style and accomplishments increased the visibility of the Library to the point where in January 1987 a New York Times reporter, discussing Boorstin's retirement, called the post of Librarian of Congress "perhaps the leading intellectual public position in the nation."

Boorstin's successor, historian James H. Billington, was nominated by President Ronald Reagan and took the oath of office as the thirteenth Librarian of Congress on September 14, 1987. Billington immediately took personal charge of the Library, instituting his own one-year review through a Management and Planning Committee and subsequently initiating a major administrative reorganization. Convinced that the Library of Congress needed to share its resources throughout the nation more widely, he instituted several projects to use new technologies in extending direct access to the Library's collections and data bases. Envisioning a new educational role for the Library, he strengthened its national cultural programming and initiated national prizes for literary and intellectual achievement. A Development Office to raise private funds was established in 1988. The creation in 1990 of the James Madison National Council, a private-sector support body consisting mostly of business executives and entrepreneurs, brought new support. Working closely with the U.S. Congress, Dr. Billington obtained a 12% budget increase for the Library in fiscal 1991.

Librarian Billington's determination to extend the reach and influence of the Library of Congress is very much in the ambitious tradition of his predecessors. Alone among the world's great libraries, the Library of Congress still attempts to be a universal library, collecting printed materials in almost all languages and non-print materials in almost all media. As it approaches its bicentennial in the year 2000, it still is guided by Thomas Jefferson's belief that all subjects are important to the library of the American national legislative--and therefore to the American people.


1. S.R. Ranganathan, "The Library of Congress Among National Libraries," ALA Bulletin 44 (October 1950): 356.

2. For a summary of the history of the Library of Congress and its functions, see John Y. Cole, "For Congress & the Nation: The Dual Nature of the Library of Congress," Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 32 (April 1975): 119-138. Unless otherwise stated, dates and statistics are from John Y. Cole, For Congress and the Nation: A Chronological History of the Library of Congress (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1979).

3. Jefferson to Samuel H. Smith, September 21, 1814, Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.

4. Ainsworth Rand Spofford, "The Government Library at Washington," International Review 5 (November 1878): 769.

5. U.S. Congress, Joint committee on the Library, Condition of the Library of Congress, March 3, 1897, 54th Cong., 2d sess., S. Rept. 1573, p. 142.

6. Arthur E. Bestor, Jr., "The Transformation of American Scholarship, 1875-1917," in Librarians, Scholars, and Booksellers at Mid-Century, ed. Pierce Butler (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 19.

7. For a more detailed discussion, see John Y. Cole, "The Library of Congress and American Scholarship, 1865-1939," in Libraries and Scholarly Communication in the United States: The Historical Dimension, ed. Phyllis Dain and John Y. Cole (N.Y.: Greenwood Press, 1990), pp. 45-61.

8. Herbert Putnam, "The Relation of the National Library to Historical Research in the United States," American Historical Association Annual Report for 1901 (Washington, D.C., 1902), p. 120.

9. James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (N.Y.: Garden City Books, 1931), p. 325.

10. For a more detailed discussion, see John Y. Cole, "The International Role of the Library of Congress: A Brief History," Alexandria 1 (December 1989): 43-51.

11. Library of Congress Staff, "The Library of Congress as the National Library: Potentialities for Service," in Libraries at Large: Tradition, Innovation, and the National Interest, ed. by Douglas M. Knight and E. Shepley Nourse (N.Y.: R.R. Bowker Company, 1969), pp. 435-465.

Note: This file has been edited for use on computer networks. This editing required the removal of diacritics, underlining, and fonts such as italics and bold.

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