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
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
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