Re-Founding the Library of Congress

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1815

The Library of Congress was established by an official act in 1800 as a modest reference library for America’s legislators, and composed primarily of law books. The collection was destroyed in August 1814 when the British army captured Washington and burned the Capitol building. Former President Thomas Jefferson then offered his extensive personal book collection as a replacement. This historic in-kind donation (for which Jefferson was later paid) changed the course of America’s library.

Jefferson’s nearly 6,500 books represented one of the finest collections anywhere. They included (in his words) “everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable in every science.” Jefferson had long been a collector of manuscripts, artwork, experimental logs, machinery, and other products of the human intellect that he viewed as having significance. If he wasn’t studying something, he was combining eclectic pieces of existing knowledge to create insights of his own—fresh ideas, new architecture, technical inventions, and expository writing. A longtime proponent of a national university, Jefferson believed strongly in the importance of an educated citizenry.

So when he reconstituted the Library of Congress through his personal gift to the nation, Jefferson didn’t have a mere reference collection in mind. “There is in fact no subject,” he argued, “to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.” And there was no backtracking at the Library once Jefferson had placed his magnificently diverse works at the core of the collection. Today, the library houses 144 million items—books, maps, works of art—that touch on virtually every aspect of human inquiry.

In 1999, a million-dollar gift from philanthropists Jerry and Gene Jones allowed the library to largely re-create Jefferson’s original assemblage of books—pulling together the surviving volumes from numerous specialized sections, and purchasing matched period books wherever one of his original volumes had disappeared or been destroyed. The resulting library is now exhibited in a single room, and may be browsed in a spiral bookcase by visitors, much as it would have been experienced by its donor. This visiting room is in the magnificent main structure of the Library of Congress—which is called, appropriately, the Thomas Jefferson Building.