09 Oct 2017


Lost Capitol Hill: A Resource of Paramount Importance

Today is Columbus Day, a Federal Holiday. This means that most government institutions are closed. For the librarians at the Library of Congress, this is not an excuse not to work, but rather an opportunity to show everyone what it is that they do. For this purpose, the main reading room of the Library of Congress will be open today from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. –one of only two days of the year that it is open to the general public. Taking pictures and asking questions are both encouraged. To get in the mood, we will look at the old Library of Congress.

When the Capitol was moved to the District of Columbia, there was one resource that was of absolute paramount importance: A library. While previous cities that had hosted the government had long-established options for research, the new city was not so endowed. It thus fell to Thomas Jefferson (pic) to ensure that the country’s representatives would have access to the information they needed.

Over the next years, the library grew–until it, along with the Capitol, was burned by the British during the War of 1812. A new library was created by the simple expedient of buying former President Jefferson’s personal library. This fact dramatically increased the size and scope of the holdings and rescued Jefferson from bankruptcy.

When the Capitol was completed with the finishing of its dome, the library was housed in a large, three-tiered room running along the west front of the Capitol, right next to the Rotunda. Members of Congress appreciated its proximity, and would, as Charles Goodrum wrote in the May 1997 LOC Information Bulletin, “rush off the floor, scoop up volumes from the Library and hurry back to use them in debate.”


An 1853 print showing the interior of the Library of Congress in the Capitol (LOC)

It was the ease with which members could use the library that caused some consternation when the discussion came to moving it. Some felt that they would be unduly hampered in their ability to do their work; others felt that this was actually a good thing.

The real difficulty was that the Capitol was running out of space. Books were put anywhere they would fit: in attics and committee rooms, along corridors and even in staircases. Newspapers, carefully bound in large volumes, fared even worse, being relegated to the lower depths of the Capitol in hastily-built brick vaults and squeezed onto metal shelving that left almost no space for maneuvering.

Finally, in 1886, work began on the building that is now known as the Jefferson Building. It took over 10 years to finish, but finally, on July 31, 1897, it was ready for use.

Beginning the following Monday, books were moved out of their old cramped quarters and into the new, spacious building. The move took three months to complete, but on November 1, a formal opening was held. Since then, the library has continued to expand, both on Capitol Hill and into Maryland, but its primary function to serve Congress and its members remains intact. Just twice a year, the library opens its main reading room to the public. If you have time today between 10 and 3, the staff of the Library will be happy to welcome you.




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