bust of Thomas Jefferson

The Library of Congress was established by an act of Congress in 1800 when President John Adams signed a bill providing for the transfer of the seat of government from Philadelphia to the new capital city of Washington. The legislation described a reference library for Congress only, containing "such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress -- and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein...."

Established with $5,000 appropriated by the legislation, it was housed in the new Capitol until August 1814, when invading British troops set fire to the Capitol Building, burning and pillaging the contents of the small library.

Within a month, retired President Thomas Jefferson (depicted above right) offered his personal library as a replacement (see Thomas Jefferson Online Exhibition). Jefferson had spent 50 years accumulating books, "putting by everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable in every science"; his library was considered to be one of the finest in the United States. In offering his collection to Congress, Jefferson anticipated controversy over the nature of his collection, which included books in foreign languages and volumes of philosophy, science, literature and other topics not normally viewed as part of a legislative library. He wrote, "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."

Jefferson's Library (recreated for the THOMAS JEFFERSON Exhibition)

In January 1815, Congress accepted Jefferson's offer, appropriating $23,950 for the 6,487 books, and the foundation was laid for a great national library (a reconstruction of Jefferson's Library is depicted to the left). The Jeffersonian concept of universality, the belief that all subjects are important to the library of the American legislature, is the philosophy and rationale behind the comprehensive collecting policies of today's Library of Congress.

Ainsworth Rand Spofford, Librarian of Congress from 1864 to 1897, applied Jefferson's philosophy on a grand scale and built the Library into a national institution. Spofford was responsible for the copyright law of 1870, which required all copyright applicants to send to the Library two copies of their work. This resulted in a flood of books, pamphlets, maps, music, prints and photographs. Facing a shortage of shelf space at its Capitol location, Spofford convinced Congress of the need for a new building, and in 1873 Congress authorized a competition to design plans for the new Library.

Early image of the Library of Congress Jefferson Building (reverse painting with mother of pearl accents)

In 1886, after many proposals and much controversy, Congress authorized construction of a new Library building in the style of the Italian Renaissance in accordance with a design prepared by Washington architects John L. Smithmeyer and Paul J. Pelz (an early depiction of the original Library of Congress is shown on the right). In 1888, General Thomas Lincoln Casey, chief of the Army Corps of Engineers, was placed in charge of construction. His chief assistant was Bernard R. Green, who was intimately involved with the building until his death in 1914. Beginning in 1892, a new architect, Edward Pearce Casey, the son of General Casey, began to supervise the interior work, including sculptural and painted decoration by more than 50 American artists.

When the Library of Congress building opened its doors to the public on Nov. 1, 1897, it was hailed as a glorious national monument and "the largest, the costliest, and the safest" library building in the world.

In 1984, Congress appropriated funds to restore the building, named the Thomas Jefferson Building in 1980, to its 19th century splendor while modernizing it for use in the 21st century. With the reopening of the building in 1997 on its 100th anniversary, the Library of Congress continues to share with the public its unparalleled research collections and the remarkable beauty of its art and architecture.