Washington DC – Library Of Congress

A visit to the Library of Congress, or, as it is frequently and perhaps more properly called, the National Library, will enable one to better realize King Solomon’s saying— ” Of making many books there is no end.” In the beautifully decorated library halls, occupying the entire central portion of the western front of the Capitol, there are 580,000 books and i80,000 pamphlets. They are in many languages — a vast store of literature, representing the researches and product of the mind in every conceivable field of human knowledge. The library is now one of the five great libraries of the world, and at its present rate of increase will number a million books and pamphlets in about ten years. The halls are crowded to repletion with publications—books in every available space; closely packed two deep on the shelves which extend tier after tier through the storied rooms; lying in great heaps on the floors; loading the railings of the galleries — half a million volumes crammed into quarters originally designed for less than half that number. An appropriation act has been passed to construct a large building adjacent to the Capitol, to cost about S3,000,000, for the use of this inestimable National Library. This new library edifice will be located at the junction of East Capitol and First streets, directly opposite the House of Representatives, and fronting the Eastern Capitol Park. It will measure 160 feet front by 310 feet in depth, and will cover about three and a half acres, being designed to store about three million volumes. On the second floor an art gallery will be provided, 300 feet long by 35 wide, for the arrangement and exhibition of the extensive collection of works of graphic art which the National Library has accumulated.

The western door of the Rotunda leads to the main hall of the library. This hall is 91 feet long, 34 feet wide, and 38 feet high. It is flanked by two others, each about the same size as the main one. They are lighted by windows and crystal roofs, are constructed of iron, with floors of marble, and are entirely fire proof. They are painted in light, delicate colors, and adorned with gold-leaf, and present an elegant appearance. The book-cases are of iron, and iron railings protect the alcoves. Small galleries extend along the stories. It is estimated that the halls contain nearly five miles of book shelving, yet the library increases yearly at such an enormous rate, that these miles of shelving have long since proved insufficient to hold the literary collections. In the main hail is the desk of the librarian, at which all applications for books must be made. Tables and chairs are placed in two of the halls for readers, and one hall is used almost entirely by the employes engaged in cataloguing publications and attending to the copyright business.

The library force consists of a librarian, whose title is the Librarian of Congress,” and twenty-three assistant librarians. The compensation of the librarian is $4,000 per year, and the assistants receive $32,640 in all. Congress annually appropriates about $i2,-00o for the purchase of books of reference not published in the United States, files of newspapers, etc. Only members of Congress, and about forty high officials of the government, have the right to take books away from the library, but all persons over sixteen years of age have the privilege of freely using the collections inside the halls. This great privilege is taken advantage of by thousands of people from all portions of the United States, who desire to investigate certain subjects, and every day the halls contain several hundred readers.

In some cases a person seeking the widest information of a special matter can have spread before him, within a short time, many books and pamphlets bearing on the subject, which have come from American, English, French, and German presses for over a century—pages dim and yellow with age, or bright and fresh from the publisher’s hands. The collections are rich in ancient and rare historical works, in books and pamphlets pertaining to the history of states, counties, and towns, and the files of American and foreign newspapers and magazines are very extensive. There are files of the principal news-papers printed in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Mary-land, Virginia, and other states, from 1735 to 1800; and from the latter date to the present time the collections of newspapers and periodicals are unrivaled. Among very rare works are two great volumes written on vellum, issued in the ‘thirteenth century, a copy of Eliot’s Indian Bible, and the various volumes written by Cotton and Increase Mather. The departments of miscellaneous literature are very full. Many an old novel, forgotten long ago; many a poem, many a song or play, dead and buried for two or three score years, can be exhumed from this vast literary storehouse. The aim always has been to collect everything published in the United States that could be obtained, and as much of foreign literature as possible, in order that the library should be complete in the full meaning of the term.

By law the Librarian of Congress has charge of the copyright business, and all applications for copyrights of books, maps, dramatic or musical compositions, and works of art, have to be made to him. Copyrights are granted for twenty-eight years, and then may be renewed for fourteen years. Some figures of the copyright business may be interesting, as they show the great mental activity of the people of the United States. During the year 1886 there were granted 31,241 copyrights, and the government received in fees the sum of $25,421. Of the articles copyrighted there were 11,136 books, 6,089 periodicals, 7,514 musical, and 672 dramatic compositions. Two complete copies of each publication copyrighted must be deposited in the Library of Congress to perfect the copyright. Thus the library is enabled to possess copies of all printed matter issued in the country on which a copyright is granted.

The library exchanges many of its spare copies of publications with the libraries of foreign governments, obtaining much valuable foreign literature in this way. All the publications and exchanges of the Smithsonian Institution are deposited here. Many donations of books are received from institutions and individuals all over the world, and purchases of thousands of volumes are made. Whenever a famous private library is sold, bids from this library are generally forwarded, and many rare books are purchased.

In 1800 Congress established this literary treasure-house with a number of books obtained from London. This was the list: ” 212 folios, 164 quartos, 581 octavos, 7 duodecimos, and 9 magazines. It was the only library of reference the government then possessed. In 1814 the collection had increased to about 3,000 volumes, which went to feed the fires started by the British troops in the Capitol. The next year Congress purchased President Jefferson’s private collection of about 7,000 books, considered the finest in the country at that time, for $23,950, and this was the nucleus of the present Library of Congress. In 1851 there were 55,000 volumes on hand, but in December of that year nearly 35,000 were destroyed by a fire in the library hall. The fire also consumed a number of valuable paintings, including Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of the first five Presidents. The main hall was soon restored in fire-proof, after designs by Walter, and the two iron extensions added, the work costing $280,500. Congress yearly appropriated large sums of money for the purchase of books. Through the efforts of ex-President Hayes, then a member of Congress, and chairman of the Committee on the Library, the invaluable historical collections belonging to Peter Force, of Washington, were purchased for $100,000, and deposited in the library. These collections of books, pamphlets, prints, etc., pertaining to early American history, are of inestimable value. They were accumulated during many years of earnest and enthusiastic antiquarian labor. In i866 the library of the Smithsonian Institution was added to the Library of Congress.

The law department contains nearly 70,000 volumes, and is considered very complete. Every volume of American, English, Irish, and Scotch court reports is to be found here, together with the statutes of all countries, from 1649 to the present time. From 2,500 to 3,500 volumes are added yearly.

This collection of works relating to jurisprudence, which is the largest and most valuable in the country, is contained in the basement story of the Capitol, in what was formerly the chamber of the Supreme Court of the United States. The chamber is directly underneath the present court chamber, and is a notable example of classical architeoture. It was designed and constructed by Latrobe, and was occupied for court purposes from the early part of the century until the winter of i860. In the vestibule Latrobe placed his celebrated ” cornstalk columns” with capitals of ears of corn, which have been described as the American order of architecture.”

There have been many important suits at law heard in the old chamber—suits concerning the disposition of vast properties, and the settlement of complicated questions of rights and privileges, every step of which has been earnestly contested by lawyers of rare ability and great distinction. Clay and Webster, and numerous other advocates of eminence in the history of American jurisprudence, have pleaded here with eloquent tongues and strong arguments —bright lights of the age that has gone. Here the renowned Chief Justice, John Marshall, of Virginia, whose effigy in bronze now adorns the western grounds of the Capitol, presided for many years, and here most of his decisions upon vital constitutional questions were given—decisions which have remained to this day as the law of the land. Here the early justices— men of sound and extensive learning—served long terms. The old chamber, now crowded with volumes of law, is indeed an historic place.

The law library is extensively used by lawyers every day, and is also of great service to the justices of the Supreme and District courts in preparing their decisions. Many members of the legal profession from distant parts of the country frequently visit Washington to consult its rare volumes.