Fires Forced Library of Congress to Evolve, Expand
The Library of Congress is known throughout the country and around the world as one of the great modern repositories of books and information. Much has been written about how the Library was nearly wiped out in 1814 when the British set fire to the Capitol during the War of 1812. But it was another fire, 37 years later that almost finished the Library for good.
The Library of Congress was established on April 24, 1800, when President John Adams signed into law a $5,000 appropriation to create a reference library for members of Congress. It lived in a dark corner of the Capitol, crammed floor to ceiling with 3,000 books and assorted maps and correspondence relevant to the work of legislators performing their duties.
Nearly all that material was lost when the British torched the Capitol on their vengeful tour through Washington, D.C. in late August 1814. Former president Thomas Jefferson immediately came to the rescue to help rebuild the Library. A true bibliophile with the largest private library in America, Jefferson sold his 6,487 volumes to the federal government for $23,950.
Jefferson’s vast collection spanned many subjects and languages, and it doubled the size of the Library. Some members of Congress questioned what use there would be for works of literature, architecture, science, or even cookbooks.
Jefferson replied, “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.”
This set the tone for the Library moving forward. No longer confined to statistical or legal works, the Library of Congress would collect material on any and every subject. Its procurement policies widened to such an extent that, by 1851, the Library contained over 55,000 volumes.
The Library was still housed in the Capitol at that time, occupying significantly more space than in 1814.
Rooms were stacked floor to ceiling with books, manuscripts, maps, paintings, newspapers, and more. Adequate ventilation in those times meant opening a window on a breezy day, so it is easy to imagine the dusty air and the smell of dried, decaying paper. Rooms were lit by candle and heated by stoves. Open flames were common, and fire safety was not widely practiced.
In other words, the Library of Congress was a firetrap.
In the early morning hours of Dec. 24, 1851, the Captain of the Capitol Police smelled smoke in the area of the Library. He went to investigate and, according to the National Era, a weekly Washington newspaper of the time, “on opening the door, a portion of the library was found to be on fire, and the flames spread with great rapidity.”
Firemen and citizens alike pitched in to combat the blaze, and they worked throughout Christmas Eve to contain the fire and save what they could of the Library’s collection. No lives were lost, but the damage to the Library was catastrophic.
The fire consumed 35,000 books, two-thirds of the collection. The National Era reported, “A number of valuable and excellent paintings also perished. Of these, were portraits of the first five Presidents, by [Gilbert] Stuart, an original portrait of Columbus. … The fine busts of Jefferson, Lafayette, and General Taylor, with a bronze one of Washington by Mills, are also rendered worthless.”
Two-thirds of Jefferson’s original library was also destroyed in the fire. (All but 300 volumes would eventually be replaced, but it took diligent researchers over a century to do so.)
It was the most devastating loss in the history of the Library. Congress acted quickly to replace the lost volumes, appropriating $168,700 for the effort. However, the Library did not rebound quickly as it had after the 1814 fire, and there was no strong supporter around like Jefferson to drive the effort.
The money from Congress was earmarked only to replace what was lost, not to expand the collection. John Silva Meehan, Librarian of Congress during this period, delegated some of the Library’s document distribution activities to other agencies and departments. Some members of Congress believed that a cap should be put on the Library’s size to keep it from becoming unwieldy. And from inadvertently burning down the Capitol.
This conservative view held until after the Civil War. Librarian Ainsworth Rand Spofford advocated for the Library of Congress to be the central library for the whole country and serve both the government and the public. He supported a change in the copyright law that called for a deposit of each new copyrighted work in the U.S. to be held in the Library. He also lobbied for a separate building to house the Library of Congress. It was completed in 1897, and named the Thomas Jefferson Building in 1980.
Today, the Library of Congress accepts up to 12,000 new items each day, adding to a collection of some 168 million volumes. These items are freely shared and exchanged with items from libraries across the country and around the world.
The Library of Congress is open for public tours Monday-Saturday.