War and a library: The Library of Congress burns

Capitol burned in war of 1812

US Capitol after the burning

Two hundred years ago, the War of 1812 entered its final stages. This now obscure war turned out to have a decisive influence on the development of the Library of Congress.

The upstart United States of America had declared war on the most powerful nation in the world at the time. Its victories were few, but it captured present day Toronto (then called York) in April 1813. American troops burned the Government House and Parliament Buildings.

The British retaliated the following year. They invaded Washington in August 1814 with the intent of burning it. The British had a easier time in Washington than the Americans had had in York. The city was neither fortified nor defended.

On August 24, 1814, the British burned both the White House and the Capitol. At the time, the Capitol consisted only of the north and south wings, connected only by a wooden walkway.

Unlike the combustable White House, the Capital was fireproof. The exterior survived. It was not the British objective to destroy the building. They wanted only to inflict maximum humiliation. They burned only the most important rooms, but these included the room that housed Congress’ book collection.
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The early history of the Library of Congress

Until 1800, Philadelphia had been the seat of the American government. Construction of the new city of Washington had not yet progressed to the point where it could serve as the capital.

In that year, President John Adams signed a bill that provided for transferring government operations from Philadelphia to Washington. That same law established the Library of Congress.

By the way, in the previous post I wrote about the Library of Congress website. An article called  “History of the Library” is easily accessible from the home page. Other relevant pages are less obvious, but the entire site has far more pages than any one page can index.

At first, the Library of Congress was intended only as a reference library for the exclusive use of Congress, containing “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress – and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein.” Congress appropriated $5000 for the purpose. Then came the War of 1812.

I don’t know if any record survives of the holdings of that library, but within a month of the burning of the capitol building, former President Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his own personal library to the federal government to replace it.

Jefferson had amassed 6,487 books over a period of 50 years. It contained “everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable in every science.” (The word “science” at the time covered every scholarly interest, not just the subjects meant by it today.)

To put the size of Jefferson’s library in perspective, Congress appropriated $23,950 to purchase it in January 1815. That figure is nearly five times the amount of the appropriation that first established the Library of Congress.

It was also much broader in scope than simply the obviously necessary reference materials. He collected literature and books on such wide-ranging topics as philosophy, the various sciences, and other topics not obviously necessary in a legislative reference collection. Jefferson’s collection even included books in foreign languages.

Jefferson anticipated that many people would object to such extravagance. He wrote, “I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”
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The Library of Congress’ new philosophy of collection development

From the aftermath of the War of 1812 onward, then, the Library of Congress has amassed a truly comprehensive collection. In that year, George Watterson began a 14-year tenure as Librarian of Congress. Two men had previously held that title, but they served simultaneously as Clerk of the House of Representatives.

The Library of Congress is officially not the National Library of the United States, but on July 31, 1815 Watterson or someone influence by his thinking used that term in the process of advocating that the library become “the great repository of the literature of the world.”

Congress approved spending $2000 for more books in 1820—the beginning of annual appropriations for that purpose. In 1824, the appropriation was $5000.

Disaster struck again on December 24, 1851. By that time the Library of Congress owned 55,000 books, but a fire destroyed two-thirds of it, including two thirds of the books purchased from Jefferson.

Library of Congress in the capitol

This watercolor, published in the Feb. 27, 1897, issue of Harper’s Weekly, shows crowded conditions in the Capitol that made a new Library of Congress building necessary. Librarian Ainsworth Rand Spofford stands at the far right. – W. Bengough

In 1864, President Lincoln appointed the sixth Librarian of Congress, Ainsworth Spofford, who served until 1897. Spofford’s tenure transformed the Library of Congress. He vigorously applied Jefferson’s philosophy of collection development.

By 1870 Spofford had settled political rivalry with the Smithsonian Institution by obtaining legislation to transfer its entire library collection to the Library of Congress. He also saw to it that the copyright law of 1870 established the Library of Congress as the copyright registrar and depository.

The copyright law brought a flood of free books, pamphlets, maps, photographs, etc. to the library. By 1874, the copyright deposits were adding more to the collection than library purchases.

And it was still housed in the capitol building. There was no room for the entire collection there. Tens of thousands of books were simply piled on the floor in no semblance of order.

Spofford began his struggle to move the Library of Congress into its own building in 1871. In part because of those struggles, Spofford remained aloof from the more general development of American librarianship, which included the establishment of the American Library Association in 1876. Also, his vision of a national library did not include cooperation with other libraries.

The year 1897 brought both defeat and victory for Spofford. At the urging of the American Library Association, Congress decided that its library should serve as the focal point for cooperation among all the nation’s libraries. It would henceforth provide such services as centralized cataloging, a national union catalog, and interlibrary loan.

So effective July 1, 1897, Spofford was demoted to Chief Assistant Librarian. But the new Library of Congress building that he had advocated for so long opened to the public on November 1.

If the British had not burned Washington in during the War of 1812, the President’s House might have remained a combustible building, and the Library of Congress might have remained simply a modest reference collection of interest to no one but members of Congress.

A day of national humiliation during a very minor and forgettable war turned out to have long-term and highly beneficial effects on what is now one of the leading libraries in the entire world.

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A Brief History of Fort York / Carl Benn
Burning of the Capitol:  what really happened during the War of 1812 / Architect of the Capital Curator’s Office
History of the Library / Library of Congress
Previous Librarians of Congress / Library of Congress
10 things you didn’t know about the War of 1812 / Tony Horwitz and Brian Wolly

Illustrations are public domain

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