Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 981:
THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 981.

Today, some reading material for Congress. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The Library of Congress, with some 90,000,000 cataloged items, is by far the largest library in the world. What's more, most American academic libraries use their cataloging.

In the last months of the American Revolution, Young James Madison saw that our Congress would need a reading room. He listed 307 titles we should buy. The list was forgotten during our first hectic years. Congress made do with very few books.

We moved the government from Philadelphia to the new District of Columbia in 1800, and we shipped Congress's books along with it -- only 242 titles by then. It was a country lawyer's library. Congress's first order of business in the muddy new capital was to appropriate $10,000 for sidewalks and $5000 to create Madison's reading room.

That lover of books, Thomas Jefferson, who'd just been made president, micromanaged the project. Don't waste money on fancy bindings, he told the book buyer who sailed for London. Ship the books in trunks; boxes are worthless after they arrive. When the books came, they sold the trunks and recovered their value.

This was no public lending library. That wouldn't be invented for another half century or so. And there was little frivolity here. The first holdings consisted of law, theology, geography, technology -- the things our very serious leaders figured Congress would have to know to create America.

There was no card catalog, no fancy classification scheme -- just a printed list of books, broken into categories: Statutes, Sacred History, Ecclesiastical History, Civil History, and so on. Books were arranged by size: Folio, Octavo, Quarto, Duodecimo. Congressmen paid stiff fines for late returns. A Folio volume, one day late, cost a dollar -- half the librarian's daily pay.

The 1812 book-list shows 3000 volumes. Jefferson had said that "books of entertainment [would not be] within the scope of it." But now poetry and drama were in the collection. The 1812 listing makes a fine window into the minds of our early leaders.

But that Library was about to perish. Madison was now president, and in 1814 he watched as British armies burned Washington and the Library with it. Former president Jefferson responded in the most remarkable way. He recreated the entire Library of Congress out of his huge personal library. He contributed 6500 books and more than doubled the Library of Congress's size with his gift.

And we built our new country on those books, well-chosen by the best minds of a remarkable age. The Library is now 30,000 times larger than it was during the War of 1812. We remain a great nation -- rooted in, and still rising upon, great books.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


The 1812 Catalogue of the Library of Congress: A Facsimile, (with Introduction by Robert A. Rutland) Washington, D.C., Library of Congress, 1982.

I am grateful to Melinda Reager Flannery, Head of Cataloging at the Rice University Library, for considerable advice, and to Darral Parkin, Jack Hall, Pat Bozeman, and Jeff Fadell at the UH library for additional counsel.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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