The Library of Congress Building Celebrates 120 Years

“It was [Samuel] Johnson, by the way, who said that the most miserable of human beings was he or she who could not read on a rainy day.” That was The Times of Washington, DC, writing about the public opening of the reading room of the newly completed Congressional Library on November 1, 1897, 120 years ago today. The Times noted that heavy rains that day couldn’t keep an enthusiastic crowd from witnessing the building, seated across the street from the U.S Capitol, in person.

The newspaper marveled at the beauty of the new building, saying, “The degree of splendor reached by this building is such that no other building in America can compare with it; none elsewhere can excel it.” Kate B. Sherwood of the National Tribune of DC was even more generous in her praise:

    So noble is the edifice, so rich in the treasures of architecture, sculpture, and painting; so symbolic of what America has done in the single half century towards which her attention has been turned to the fine arts, and so prophetic of what the future shall be, that one can only behold and marvel, and repeating the message which was first flashed across the electric wires from this vast land of promise to the land of completion, beyond the sea, when the Atlantic cable was completed, say again: “Behold, what hath God wrought.”

The beauty of the Congressional Library building—known as the Thomas Jefferson Building since 1980—was a reflection of the genius and wealth of knowledge housed within its collections.

Building a new home for the Library of Congress

When the capitol of the U.S. was moved from Philadelphia to Washington, DC in 1800, Congress created the Library of Congress to provide reference materials to members of the House and Senate. The Library was housed within the U.S. Capitol building. Ainsworth Rand Spofford became the sixth Librarian of Congress in 1864 and used his ambition to shift the Library from Congressional resource to national institution.

Spofford first proposed a new building to house the Library of Congress in 1872 because it had outgrown its space. Every available inch had been used up—“Masses of books, pamphlets, newspapers, engravings, etc., in the course of collation, cataloguing, labeling, and stamping, in preparation for their proper location in the Library, are necessarily always under the eye and almost under the feet of Members of Congress and other visitors.” In addition, Spofford decried the fact that “the entire Library of Congress affords no place for the quiet pursuit of study, but is subject to the constant annoyance of compulsory violations of its rule of silence by its own officers, and by the invasion of frequent processions of talking visitors.”

Congress agreed with Spofford. After some delays, it authorized construction of a new building in 1886.

Copyright’s role in building the Library’s collections

When Spofford proposed the new building in 1872, he estimated that at the current rate of acquisitions, the Library’s collections would include 2.5 million volumes by 1975, roughly one century in the future. Spofford greatly underestimated the Library’s growth. By June 30, 1975, the Library’s collections exceeded 70 million items—nearly 17.5 million books, but also photos, prints, musical works, films, microfiche, and other items. Since then, the number has more than doubled, with the Library housing over 164 million items in its collections.

One reason Spofford greatly underestimated the Library’s collections may have been because he greatly underestimated the importance of copyright law to the country and to the Library’s collection. Prior to the 1976 Copyright Act, copyright registration was required to gain copyright protection, and registration required the deposit of copies of the work. Registration initially was administered by federal district courts, but in 1870—also thanks to Spofford—the administration of copyright registration and collection of deposits was centralized within the Library of Congress, and deposit copies were made available to the Library specifically for its collections. In a U.S. Copyright Office copyright law revision study covering deposit of copyrighted works, author Elizabeth K. Dunne wrote, “By 1875 copyright had become the Library’s largest source of acquisitions for books and almost the only source for some other materials.”

As part of a complete revision of the law, the 1976 Copyright Act removed registration as a requirement for copyright protection, but it retained it on a voluntary basis that provides copyright owners with a number of legal benefits. Many copyright owners continued to register—and deposit copies of—their works. Last year, the U.S. Copyright Office forwarded over 635,000 copies of works, valued at $35.6 million, to the Library of Congress.

This is exactly the result Spofford intended when he sought to place copyright registration duties within the Library of Congress. In an 1870 letter advocating for the change, he wrote,

    • Under the present system, although this National Library is entitled by law to a copy of every work for which a copyright is taken out, it does not receive, in point of fact, more than four-fifths of such publications.
    The transfer of the Copyright business proposed would concentrate and simplify the business, and this is a cardinal point….

The role of copyright registration and deposit in growing the collections of the Library of Congress parallels the role of copyright itself in fueling the creative work that libraries maintain. As the Supreme Court aptly noted in its 1985 Harper & Row, Publishers v Nation Enterprises120 opinion, “[T]he Framers intended copyright itself to be the engine of free expression. By establishing a marketable right to the use of one’s expression, copyright supplies the economic incentive to create and disseminate ideas.” By ensuring that creators and copyright owners continue to have meaningful rights and effective remedies, we can ensure that the beauty of the Congressional Library building continues to reflect the wealth of knowledge within.

*Image: Image from _The times_. (Washington [D.C.]), 02 Nov. 1897. _Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers_. Lib. of Congress.

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