Happy Birthday to the Ginger President, who gave a nation the gift of knowlege

Books constitute capital. A library book lasts as long as a house, for hundreds of years. It is not, then, an article of mere consumption but fairly of capital, and often in the case of professional men, setting out in life, it is their only capital — Thomas Jefferson

The Library of Congress today occupies three massive structures on Capitol Hill, near the U.S. Capitol. The Jefferson Building, opened in 1897, the Adams Building, 1939, and the Madison Building, completed in 1980.

The Library of Congress was established on April 24, 1800, when President John Adams signed an Act of Congress providing for the transfer of the seat of government from Philadelphia to the new capital city of Washington. Part of the legislation appropriated $5,000 “for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress …, and for fitting up a suitable apartment for containing them….” Books were ordered from London and the collection, consisting of 740 books and 3 maps, was housed in the new Capitol. Although the collection covered a variety of topics, the bulk of the materials were legal in nature, reflecting Congress’ role as a maker of laws.

Thomas Jefferson played an important role in the Library’s early formation, signing into law on January 26, 1802 the first law establishing the structure of the Library of Congress. The law established the presidentially appointed post of Librarian of Congressand a Joint Committee on the Library to regulate and oversee the Library, as well as giving the president and vice president the ability to borrow books.  It also permitted the president and vice president to borrow books, a privilege that, in the next three decades, was extended to most government agencies and to the judiciary. A separate law department was approved in 1832, along with an appropriation to purchase law books under the guidance of the chief justice of the United States.

Jefferson believed that the power of the intellect could shape a free and democratic society. As a man who stated he could not live without books, he took a keen interest in the Library of Congress and its collection while he was president of the United States from 1801-1809. Throughout his presidency, he personally recommended books for the Library, and he appointed the first two Librarians of Congress The Library of Congress was destroyed in August 1814, when invading British troops set fire to the Capitol buildingand the small library of 3,000 volumes within.

Within a month, former President Jefferson, by then retired to Monticello, offered his personal library — the largest and finest in the country. Jefferson had spent 50 years accumulating a wide variety of books, including ones in foreign languages and volumes of philosophyscienceliterature, and other topics not normally viewed as part of a legislative library, such as cookbooks. He wrote that, “I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”

In January 1815, Congress accepted Jefferson’s offer, appropriating $23,950 for his 6,487 books. This more than doubled the number of volumes that had been in the destroyed Library of Congress, and vastly expanded the scope of the Library far beyond the bounds of a legislative library. It was Jefferson’s belief that the American legislature needed ideas and information on all subjects and in many languages in order to govern a democracy.

The acquisition by Congress of Jefferson’s library provided the basis for the expansion of the Library’s functions. The Jeffersonian belief in the power of knowledge and the direct link between knowledge and democracy shaped the Library’s philosophy of sharing its collections and services as widely as possible. This rationale  also informs the comprehensive collecting policies of today’s Library of Congress.

Thanks Tom!

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