As esteemed author Ray Bradbury once said, “Without libraries, what have we? We have no past and no future.” So the Founding Fathers also believed that libraries were the cornerstones of civilized society. Education was essential in forming the future of the new country. On this day in 1800, President John Adams signed legislation enabling congress to purchase $5,000 worth of books to establish the first Library of Congress.
Ever the astute intellectual, James Madison was the first to propose the idea of establishing a congressional library for delegates to reference and study law. Nearly 15 years later, President John Adams ensured the purchase of 740 books and 3 maps from London. The small collection was housed in the U.S Capitol building.
During the War of 1812, however, the capitol was burned down, along with the growing collection of around 3,000 volumes. Exceedingly generous, President Thomas Jefferson offered his personal collection of 6,487 books to replace the lost library. Jefferson’s collection was more scholarly than the typical gentleman’s library of the day, which set the precedent for the future Library of Congress.
Among his wide variety of books he had gathered over the years were topics on philosophy, science, literature, architecture, law, and strangely enough, cookbooks. He had a uniquely Jeffersonian method of organizing his books, a style that was upheld until the late 19th century. Instead of organizing his books on topics, he divided them into three categories: memory, reason, and imagination.
In 1851, however, another fire in the library tragically destroyed over 35,000 volumes. Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, once again the library was slowly restored to its former glory. Following the Civil War, Congress passed an initiative to expand the library.
Today, the Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, holding over 162 million items. The strong foundation established from the beginning has set the United States apart as a leading figure on education on the world’s stage.