The Library of Congress is the research library that officially serves the United States Congress, but which is the de facto national library of the United States.
It is the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States. John Cole argues that it is now the largest and most international library in the world. He attributes that to its highly influential leaders, especially Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1864–97), Herbert Putnam (1899–1939), Luther H. Evans (1945–53), and James H. Billington (1987–). Cole says they, “have affirmed and expanded Thomas Jefferson’s concept that the Library of Congress is a national institution that should be universal in scope and widely and freely available to everyone.”
Located in four buildings in Washington, D.C., as well as the Packard Campus in Virginia, it is the second largest library in the world by number of items cataloged. However, it should be noted that such metrics are of limited utility due to the variety of cataloging methods employed by institutions.
The Library of Congress moved to Washington in 1800, after sitting for eleven years in the temporary national capitals of New York and Philadelphia. The small Congressional Library was housed in the United States Capitol for most of the 19th century until the early 1890s. Most of the original collection had been destroyed by the British in 1814 during the War of 1812. To restore the collection in 1815, former president Thomas Jefferson sold 6,487 books, his entire personal collection, to pay his debts.
After a period of slow growth another fire struck the Library in 1851, in its Capitol chambers, again destroying a large amount of the collection, including many of Jefferson’s books. The Library of Congress then began to grow rapidly in both size and importance after the American Civil War and a campaign to purchase replacement copies for volumes that had been burned from other sources, collections and libraries (which had begun to speckle throughout the burgeoning U.S.A.). The Library received the right of transference of all copyrighted works to have two copies deposited of books, maps, illustrations and diagrams printed in the United States. It also began to build its collections of British and other European works and then of works published throughout the English-speaking world.
This development culminated in the construction during 1888-1894 of a separate, expansive library building across the street from The Capitol, in the “Beaux Arts” architecture style with fine decorations, murals, paintings, marble halls, columns and steps, carved hardwoods and a stained glass dome. It included several stories built underground of steel and cast iron stacks.
The Library’s primary mission is researching inquiries made by members of Congress through the establishment of a “Congressional Research Service”, established 1914. Although it is open to the public, only high-ranking government officials may check out books and materials. The Library promotes literacy and American literature through projects such as the American Folklife Center, American Memory, Center for the Book and Poet Laureate.