America’s Library

Although Congress had acquired some 243 volumes in its first decade of existence, the Library of Congress may be said to have begun with the purchase of 740 books from Europe in 1800. Two centuries later, the Library had grown to house 115 million items, including 22 million books. James Conaway traces this growth, largely by focusing on the careers of the first thirteen Librarians of Congress in America’s Library: The Story of the Library of Congress, 1800-2000.

Yet Conaway does not slight the contributions of others to the development of the institution. Taking pride of place is Thomas Jefferson. After the British in 1814 burned Washington, D.C., Jefferson sold Congress his own library, which was twice the size of the one the British had destroyed. In recognition of this second founding of the Library of Congress, its first separate building was named for Jefferson, and the on-line version of the Congressional Record, produced by the Library, is named Thomas.

Among other collections that have become part of the Library is that of Washington, D.C., physician Joseph M. Toner, whose 40,000 volume donation included many early works dealing with George Washington. Library of Congress concerts are performed on Stradivari instruments given by Gertrude Clarke Whittall. The Library’s Gutenberg Bible, one of only three perfect copies on vellum, was among the Otto H. F. Volbehr incunabula purchased in 1930 for $1.5 million, half their appraised value.

In the course of this history, Conaway inserts brief discussions about some of the Library’s most fascinating holdings, such as Mathew Brady’s Civil War photographs, and significant figures like Ainsworth Rand Spofford, who, as Conaway states, for forty-seven years labored to transform the institution “from a legislative resource into a genuinely national institution.” Enriching this readable account is a cornucopia of illustrations, drawn mainly from the treasures of the Library itself. Altogether Conaway has created a fine introduction to the Library as it enters its third century of service to Congress and the country.