collection of 6,487 volumes to Congress in 1815. At the time, Jefferson’s library was considered the finest in America.

According to its mission, the Library is “to acquire, organize, preserve, secure, and sustain for the present and future of the Congress and the nation a comprehensive record of American history and creativity and a universal collection of human knowledge.” More recently, the mission of LC has been articulated as follows: “To make its resources available and useful to the Congress and the American people and to sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations.”2

The initial holdings of the Library were a reference tool rather than any attempt at a comprehensive collection or a collection of American publications. The Library was chiefly a library of legal information that might prove useful to legislators. Twenty percent of the initial holdings were law books in the strict sense. When Jefferson sold his multifaceted, multilingual collection to Congress, he felt the need to defend its diversity by stating that there was “no subject to which a Member of Congress might not have occasion to refer.”3 This combination of missions—LC as a reference for legislators and LC as a comprehensive collection of human creativity—has continued to affect the course of the Library. The legislative and reference function was emphasized in the 1832 legislation creating the Law Library of Congress. This branch of the Library of Congress was housed in the Capitol until 1935 and was administered until that time by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Progress toward the comprehensive collection that Mr. Jefferson had favored was interrupted in the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1851 a fire in the Capitol destroyed 35,000 volumes of the 55,000 in the collection at the time, although Congress responded quickly by appropriating the funds to replace the lost books. The fire was followed in 1859 by a repeal of the law providing for copyright deposits at the Library. U.S. copyright activities became centralized at the Patent Office, which meant that LC and the Smithsonian Institution no longer received copies of the books and pamphlets deposited for copyright under the 1846 law providing for the enrichment of library collections through copyright deposit.

Efforts to build the collection resumed in the 1860s. For example, the Library acquired the 40,000 volumes from the Smithsonian’s library in


As stated in “The Mission and Strategic Priorities of the Library of Congress: 1997-2004,” available online at <>.


Thomas Jefferson to Samuel H. Smith, September 21, 1814, Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress, as described in Jefferson’s Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress, by John Y. Cole (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1993). Available online at <>.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement