On April 24, 1800, the Library of Congress was established under the Congressional act signed by President John Adams that transferred the nation’s capital from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. Congress was appropriated $5,000 “for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress… and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein.” The library was originally only accessible to the United States Congress and was housed in the Capitol building when the British burnt it down in August of 1814 during the War of 1812. The contents of the library were destroyed.
Although the loss of the library and its contents was an intellectual tragedy, the library was quickly recreated and replaced inside the Capitol building when Congress purchased the 6,487-book library of Thomas Jefferson for $23,950 in January of 1815. Jefferson’s diverse library of political philosophy, literature, scientific discoveries, foreign languages, etc., offered the Congress more information than the old library ever had. As he wrote of the library’s transformation from being strictly a legislative library into being an intellectually multifarious institution, “I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude for their collection; there is, in face, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”
As the library continued to grow, the construction of a separate building for the Library of Congress was finally approved in 1886. The building was designed after the Paris Opera House, and its interior has been decorated by more than 50 American artists. In 1897, the library was open to the public and has since been as what it is today”the largest, costliest, and safest” library building in the world.
–Megan Gisclon is a junior Ashbrook Scholar majoring in History.