It was a hot, gloomy day in Charlottesville, Virginia, in June 1815, as Thomas Jefferson watched as the last of ten wagons carried away his entire personal library. His beloved 1744 edition of Cicero headed north with nearly 6,500 other volumes, and Monticello’s Sage was private. “I can’t live without books,” he wrote shortly afterwards to John Adams.
Liquidating his library had been a painful choice, but Jefferson had compelling incentives. On the one hand, the former president was facing debts of around $20,000 and the library would bring him close to $24,000. But Jefferson had a second motive: his books were destined for Washington, D.C., where they would become the cornerstone of the rebuilding of the Library of Congress, which the British army had burned down the previous year, along with all the rest of the old capitol. Jefferson was now the founding father of the nation’s restored library.
Established in 1800 with just 740 volumes and a modest endowment of $5,000, or about $114,000 today, the Library of Congress did not yet have the three main buildings we know today. After the fire of 1814, the Blodget Hotel at Seventh and E streets served as a temporary capitol, and Jefferson’s books that day were destined for a modest room on the third floor. Congress moved the library to the partially restored Capitol in 1818, but fires would continue to plague the library for decades to come as space grew increasingly cramped and faulty chimney flues proved a nuisance. constant threat.
After the Civil War, Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford, who served from 1864 to 1897, capitalized on a newfound patriotism and took steps to make the library accessible to everyone, expanding the collections and creating a public reading room. The end of Spofford’s tenure saw the opening of the main location on November 1, 1897, the Library of Congress Building – renamed the Thomas Jefferson Building in 1980 – with its ornate ceilings and lavish reading rooms displaying works of American Painters and Sculptors, where anyone can come and read for free. Increasingly, the library hosts scenes of literary history in action. In 1906, Mark Twain appeared in the Library’s Congressional Reading Room to testify before Congress about a copyright reform bill while debuting a new look: the suit. all white that was to become his signature.
By 1901 the Library of Congress had become the first American library to contain more than a million volumes, and the following decades brought a torrent of books and journals, as new discoveries in science and new schools of political thought accelerated the rhythm of intellectual production. Since 1950, the size of the library’s collections and staff has tripled; there are now over 25 million books as well as over 170 million other items in over 470 languages, including photos, maps, periodicals, manuscripts, sheet music, telephone directories and much more . Since acquiring its first audio recording in 1904 – a wax cylinder of a speech by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany – the library’s audio collection has grown to more than 2.6 million recordings, many of which are available online through the library’s National Jukebox initiative, launched in 2011. Meanwhile, cultural luminaries have followed Jefferson in entrusting their archives to the library; in April, Elaine Joyce, the widow of Neil Simon, donated 7,700 manuscripts and letters from the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.
The library began digitizing its holdings in 1990. These days, the task is advancing at a remarkable pace. Each book is scanned manually. Once the scans are done, the library can digitize about 600 books in 30 minutes, says Ranjan Biswas, supervisor of the library’s mission platforms, design and development section. Thanks to an improved content transfer system, adopted in 2021, downloading scans is faster than ever. “Before, it took 15 minutes to read a book,” explains Biswas. “Now it takes 30 seconds.”
In 2018, the library began reaching out to the public for help, launching Letters to Lincoln, a massive crowdsourcing initiative. For nearly two years, more than 2,800 ordinary Americans have helped transcribe 28,000 digitized pages of President Abraham Lincoln’s correspondence, which are now digitally accessible to readers around the world. More recent crowdsourcing projects include soliciting volunteers to transcribe articles by Clara Barton and Walt Whitman.
Some critics may consider electronic screens anathema to learning, but digitization can be seen as the final step in making the library’s long-held democratic ideals a reality. Etched into the John Adams building are lines from Jefferson: “Educate and inform the mass of the people. Make them see that it is in their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve it. Thanks to technology, Jefferson’s collection will soon be instantly accessible to “the masses” – or at least any citizen with an Internet connection – a triumph for the founding principles of what is today the largest library in the world. world.