Library of Congress: government websites you should know

Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building

Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building

It’s not like you can go into the Library of Congress and check out books. It’s not an ordinary library.

But it’s as much your library as your public library. Unofficially, the Library of Congress is the national library of the United States.

You can, if you want, get a reader registration card and use the reading rooms. None of the collection can leave the buildings, of which there are now three. Most people never go to the Library of Congress, or if they do, it’s as a tourist.

On the other hand, it offers so many services online that I’ll have to write multiple posts.

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Copyright and the collection

The Library of Congress has been the official place to register and deposit copyright since 1870. Copyright deposits are therefore the single largest source of the 12,000 new items added to the collection every working day.

It does not own a copy of every book every published in the United States. The Library of Congress was established in 1800, 70 years before it was given responsibility for copyright. In turn, it was responsible for copyright for 27 years before it got its first permanent building.

So consider all the books published before 1800 Add to that number all the books deposited somewhere else for the next 70 years, and the number of copyright deposits that undoubtedly got lost before there was any good place to put them.

It’s easy to understand why the Library of Congress doesn’t actually have everything. On the other hand, it has by far the largest collection in the country. It has more than 36 million books—not quite twice as much as the second largest library. It also has more than 121 million other items, including manuscripts, maps, photographs, videos, and various art works.

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Reference services

Any ordinary library has some kind of reference collection (although nowadays much of it is online) and reference librarians available to answer questions. So does the Library of Congress.

Its online reference collection is called the Virtual Reference Shelf. There you will find links to online resources for 30 categories.  These include subject areas like art, business, politics & government, and science & technology.

LOC virtual reference shelfYou can also find consumer information; a variety of dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other general reference sources, and even a guide to sorting out what all those government (and other) acronyms and abbreviations stand for.

If you look for the Virtual Reference Shelf from the home page, you first have to click on “Ask a Librarian.” The Library of Congress has reference librarians. The library’s primary mission is to serve members of Congress. After that, the priorities are serving the needs of government, other libraries, and members of the public.

So yes, general service to the public is its lowest priority. But within certain reasonable limits—spelled out on the site—you can ask questions of Library of Congress reference librarians and they will answer.

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Online highlights

LOC home pageA simple list of the kinds of information and materials you can find on line should be sufficient explanation of why this post has only begun to scratch the surface of the riches of the Library of Congress.

Many of the following areas include extensive essays written by Library of Congress’ subject matter experts. By no means has the library digitized a majority of any of this content, but it has made an astounding amount available.

  • American Memory, with links to 18 categories, including advertising, African American and Native American history, women’s history, immigration, performing arts and music, religion, and sports and recreation.
  • Prints & Photographs – multiple collections that include digitized images
  • Historic Newspapers — 1,352 digitized American newspapers from 1836 to 1922
  • Performing Arts Encyclopedia, with participation from 7 different research centers
  • Veterans’ History – primarily an oral history collection with materials about both individuals and organizations
  • Sound Recordings – information about, and some digitized recordings from 21 different collections
  • Film – A listing of more than 337,000 films and videos in the library’s collection, including more than 4,000 available online
  • Maps — A listing of more than 391,000 historic maps in the library’s collection, including almost 13,000 available online
  • Manuscripts – 32 separate collections, including the papers of famous Americans from George Washington to Harry Blackmun, slave narratives, baseball highlights, and more.
  • Additional links to resources especially for kids & families, publishers, teachers, researchers, and librarians.

And that’s just what’s visible without scrolling or copying from sidebars!

So whatever it is you want to know, for serious research or just the pleasure of surfing, don’t forget this wonderful resource.

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Photo of the Thomas Jefferson Building is public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
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