New Library of Congress Building Opens

The Library of Congress expanded dramatically after an 1870 copyright law placed copyrights under the library and provided that two copies of all copyrighted books and publications be placed in its collections. A new building was constructed to accommodate the ever-expanding collections.

Summary of Event

The origins of the Library of Congress date back to a congressional act passed on April 24, 1800, that appropriated five thousand dollars to purchase books for the use of Congress and for housing them in a Capitol apartment. By the time it was destroyed during the War of 1812, the library possessed more than three thousand volumes. The library was replaced in January, 1815, with the purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s Jefferson, Thomas
[p]Jefferson, Thomas;and Library of Congress[Library of Congress] library of six thousand books. A fire Fires;Library of Congress in 1851 destroyed thirty-five thousand books of the collection, which had grown by then to fifty-five thousand volumes. Congress immediately voted for funds to expand the holdings of the library and appropriated $72,500 to rebuild its quarters in the Capitol. Library of Congress
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Libraries;Library of Congress
[kw]New Library of Congress Building Opens (Nov. 1, 1897)
[kw]Library of Congress Building Opens, New (Nov. 1, 1897)
[kw]Congress Building Opens, New Library of (Nov. 1, 1897)
[kw]Building Opens, New Library of Congress (Nov. 1, 1897)
[kw]Opens, New Library of Congress Building (Nov. 1, 1897)
Library of Congress
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Libraries;Library of Congress
[g]United States;Nov. 1, 1897: New Library of Congress Building Opens[6270]
[c]Architecture;Nov. 1, 1897: New Library of Congress Building Opens[6270]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Nov. 1, 1897: New Library of Congress Building Opens[6270]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;Nov. 1, 1897: New Library of Congress Building Opens[6270]
Casey, Edward Pearce
Casey, Thomas Lincoln
Green, Bernard R.
Smithmeyer, John L.
Pelz, Paul J.
Spofford, Ainsworth Rand

During the 1860’s, the library was increased by numerous donated collections. The Smithsonian Institution’s library of scientific journals and transactions of learned societies was deposited in 1866, and in the following year, the Peter Force collection of Americana was purchased. The library held only 165,000 books by 1870, when an important development took place. An amended copyright law gave copyright to the Library of Congress and stipulated that copyrighted books and other publications must be deposited with the library. Within two years, it became obvious to Ainsworth Rand Spofford Spofford, Ainsworth Rand , librarian of Congress from 1864 to 1897, and all who used the library that the Capitol quarters were not adequate for its natural growth and development. The library needed its own building.

After years of architectural Architecture;Library of Congress debate as to the style—with Italian, French, and German Renaissance, and even Gothic, styles discussed—the building plans of the firm of Smithmeyer and Pelz were accepted. On April 15, 1886, a congressional act created a commission to direct construction, which was in the hands of John L. Smithmeyer. Smithmeyer, John L. As progress was not made and Congress was in doubt as to the exact cost, a second act, on October 2, 1886, repealed the first, and a ceiling of $4 million was placed on construction costs. General Thomas Lincoln Casey Casey, Thomas Lincoln , chief of the Army Engineers, was placed in charge, and he modified the original plans. To the opening session of Congress in December, 1888, he demonstrated that the library would cost $6 million and would be completed within eight years. With congressional approval, construction resumed under Bernard R. Green Green, Bernard R. , superintendent and engineer appointed by General Casey, aided by Paul J. Pelz Pelz, Paul J. of the original architectural firm.

Work progressed throughout the 1890’s, and in the fall of 1893, the octagonal dome, 140 feet in diameter, was completed. In the autumn of 1897, the new Library of Congress, in Italian Renaissance style finished in New Hampshire granite, was completed at a cost of $6.3 million. On Monday, November 1, the library was opened to the public.

The interior decoration was done by leading artists of the day, under the supervision of Edward P. Casey Casey, Edward Pearce . One newspaper praised the decoration in the following terms: “It is the interior of the building . . . in which it surpasses furthest anything that the United States has done before in the way of public art.”

The operation of the library was directed from the rotunda area, which originally handled 260 readers. The stacks that radiated from the rotunda on three sides rose nine stories and could hold 4.5 million volumes. It was thought at the time that the library would be adequate for fifty years.

Over the years, the library has greatly expanded its size and services. In 1925, the main building was enlarged; in 1939, a five-story annex, the Adams Building, was completed and nearly doubled the original space. Through congressional appropriations, benefactions of public-spirited citizens, transfers from other agencies, deposit of books for copyright, and the operation of a vast network of international exchanges, the library came to contain an unrivaled collection of literary, scientific, artistic, and governmental materials.

The Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress under construction in late 1892.

(Library of Congress)

In addition to its significant size, the Library of Congress is an international repository, having been charged by Congress in the 1960’s to gather “all library materials currently published throughout the world which are of value to scholarship.” Materials are collected in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, as well as in Europe and North America, and access to these holdings has been automated. Another change in the library is its expansion of mission, from a resource for Congress to a source of information and materials for numerous publics. This increased access is available within the Library of Congress itself, through the Web, and through the outreach programs the library sponsors and manages.

The library’s panoply of materials requires special care to maintain and to preserve their availability to its diverse publics. To accomplish this, the library has a comprehensive preservation program; the most challenging preservation issue is the high acid content of paper characteristic since the mid-nineteenth century. The library’s de-acidification program treats, thereby preserving, more than half a million volumes annually. Additionally, digitization of many formats now offers the most secure and effective means of preservation and distribution of the world’s scholarly treasures.

Generous bequests, international exchange programs, diversification of formats, and expansion of services to its multiple and dispersed publics made the need for additional space obvious. Construction of the “third annex” was completed in 1980. Named in honor of the fourth U.S. president, the James Madison Memorial Building is among the largest library buildings in the world. In appearance, it is simple when compared with the artistic grandeur of the original Jefferson building. It is the home of specific programs of the Library of Congress: processing, copyright, and the Congressional Research Service. The research service, always at the core of the mission of the Library of Congress, is a primary research source for members of Congress.


The Library of Congress’s collection of more than one hundred million items in nearly five hundred languages and its staff numbering in the thousands honor the goal of its original founders, build on the leadership and diverse vision of its librarians, and equip the Library of Congress to serve both the United States and the world.

Further Reading

  • Goodrum, Charles A. Treasures of the Library of Congress. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1980. Heavily illustrated description of the unique and specialized collection of the Library of Congress.
  • Goodrum, Charles A., and Helen W. Dalrymple. Guide to the Library of Congress. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1988. A brief treatment of the history, collections, and services of the Library of Congress.
  • ________. The Library of Congress. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1982. Comprehensive treatment of the history, organization, and functions of the Library of Congress.
  • Johnston, William D. History of the Library of Congress. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1904. The first volume of an unfinished two-volume set that covers the history of the library from 1800 until 1864.
  • Thorin, Suzanne E., ed. Automation at the Library of Congress: Inside Views. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress Professional Association, 1986. Describes the development of automation within the Library of Congress.

Smithsonian Institution Is Founded

Ground Is Broken for the Washington Monument

U.S. Department of Education Is Created

Metropolitan Museum of Art Opens

American Library Association Is Founded

World’s First Skyscraper Is Built

Related Article in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

Rutherford B. Hayes. Library of Congress
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