May 2

Eleven hair trunks were delivered to the city of Washington on the second of May in the year 1801 and were placed in the office of the Clerk of the United States Senate. The trunks contained the first purchase of books for the newly formed Library for “the Use of Both Houses of Congress.” There were 740 books in the collection, all of which had been selected from the shelves of London booksellers.

The year previously, the federal government had been in the midst of the hectic period during which it moved from Philadelphia to the newly established site on the Potomac. At that time it became the responsibility of Representative Robert Goodloe Harper of South Carolina to prepare legislation for a Congressional appropriation to provide the necessary funds for the purchase of the furnishing of the various chambers and offices required. The fifth section of Harper’s bill, which was passed by the Congress and signed by President John Adams, contained the provision for the purchase of books “as may be necessary for the use of Congress at the said city of Washington, and for fitting up a suitable apartment for containing them, and for placing them therein.” The sum of money voted to provide the books was five thousand dollars.

The books remained in the aforementioned trunks until the Congress convened and a joint committee of the House and the Senate met to organize the library, an accomplishment which was completed in January, 1802. It was decreed that the books should be placed in a room in the north wing of the Capitol and were to be made available only to the President, the Vice President, and the members of both Houses of the Congress. The President was authorized to appoint a Librarian who was to receive a salary of not more than two dollars for each day of necessary attendance.

A dozen years later, the library, enjoying a quiet and almost anonymous existence, was destroyed during the British occupation of Washington in 1814. This act of vandalism, to use the words of Thomas Jefferson who was living out his retirement in Monticello, “enraged the literate citizens of our country,” with the result that the existence of the library became widely known, albeit belatedly. To form the foundation of a new library, Jefferson offered to sell to the Congress his own magnificent library, containing 6,487 volumes, unquestionably the finest in the United States. All of them had been lovingly acquired during his lifetime by the literate former president. The Senate immediately accepted Jefferson’s offer, but the House haggled for two days over the expense. Daniel Webster, then in his first term, objected to the purchase because the books were more literary than legal or historical. Finally, by a margin of ten votes, the Jefferson library became the property of the United States for the sum of $23,950.

From this modest beginning the Library of Congress has grown to be one of the great institutions of its kind in the world. In his report to Congress for 1964, Librarian Mumford stated that the collection included over 13 million books, 18.9 million manuscripts, 2.7 million maps, 3 million volumes and pieces of music, 1.7 million photographic negatives, prints, and slides, 163,000 reels and strips of microfilm, 78,000 reels of motion pictures, 130,000 reels of microfilmed newspapers, and 150,000 bound newspaper volumes.

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