(WHTM) – The U.S. Congress needed some books.

While they met in New York City and Philadelphia in the 1780s and 1790s, they had access to some excellent local libraries for research and reference. But when they moved to Washington D.C., they had to build a library of their own from scratch.

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On April 24, 1800, President John Adams signed an act of Congress to make the move to D.C. The act included $5000 (About $119,776.19 in 2023 dollars) to purchase books for Congress.

The Library of Congress was in business.

While John Adams approved the first funds for the Library, it was the next president, Thomas Jefferson, who really got the institution rolling. He appointed the first two Librarians of Congress and encouraged them to acquire more than just law books, believing lawmakers needed information on all subjects.

Then the library went up in flames.

The aftermath of the burning of the Capitol, 1814. (Architect of the Capitol)

On August 24, 1814, during the War of 1812, British troops captured Washington and set much it on fire. (We should note this was done in retaliation for American forces torching Canada’s capital of York, now known as Toronto, on April 27.) The U.S. Capitol building was heavily damaged, and the 3000+ book library in the north wing was totally destroyed. The British then tried to take Baltimore in September, but couldn’t capture a fort standing in their way. Someone wrote a song about it.

President Jefferson, now retired, came to the rescue, offering to sell Congress his personal library of 6,487 books at cost. The offer was accepted, and those books became the nucleus of the Library of Congress we know today.

The Library kept growing, especially after 1870, when it became the center for U.S. copyright registration. This came with the stipulation that two copies of anything registered for copyright be deposited in the library. The library filled and overflowed every place they could find for it. Finally, in 1897, the Library got its first permanent home, the Thomas Jefferson Building, located just east of the Capitol.

Thomas Jefferson Building under construction, 1893 (Library of Congress)

The Library continued to grow, and more buildings were built: the John Adams Building in 1938, the James Madison Memorial Building in 1981, the High Density Storage Facility in 2002, at Fort Meade, Md., and the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in 2007, in Culpeper, Va.

How much is in the Library of Congress? Since they get thousands of new submissions every day, any number you find is already out of date. It has millions of books and printed materials, as well as maps and manuscripts, photographs, movies and videos, audio recordings, prints, drawings, and “special collections” (their term). And it’s no longer just for members of Congress; anyone aged 16 and older may use the collections. You’ll need a reader card with a photo provided by the Library, and no, you’re not allowed to check out books – or anything else.

Can’t make it to the Library? Not to worry, they’ve been digitizing a lot of the collection, so you can look at it online. It has an online catalog, or you can just go to the Library’s home page, and dive in from there.

At the top of the home page is a dropdown menu, as you see on web pages everywhere, having a list of categories you can search for. But at the very top of that list, there’s a single word that, in a way, sums up the entire mission of the Library of Congress.