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Published: July 12, 2011

Library of Congress

A library established in 1800 to provide new, inexperienced members of Congress with reference works related to law, legislation and the technical aspects of governing. President John Adams approved the original act of Congress appropriating $5,000 to found the library “for the use of Congress.” Adams’s successor, Thomas Jefferson, helped expand the library, which was originally housed in a room in the capitol. In 1802, Jefferson appointed the first librarian of Congress, who continues to be a presidential appointee requiring Senate approval.

In 1815, after the British had burned the library during the War of 1812, Jefferson offered his 6,000-volume personal library—twice the number of books destroyed by the British—as a replacement, which Congress agreed to purchase. During the 19th century, the library’s collection grew to include appropriate services for the entire government and the public. Funded by Congress, the library acquires many works through gifts and from deposits of new books, scholarly works, manuscripts, pamphlets, periodicals and films, as required by copyright law. Today’s collection includes works in more than 470 languages. In addition to its nearly 30 million books, the library houses manuscripts, the personal papers of many presidents and government officials, newspapers, maps, music scores, microfilms, films, photographs, recordings, prints and drawings, Braille volumes and recorded, or talking, books. The library maintains the Congressional Research Service to provide members of Congress with needed materials and a separate research unit in each department to serve the public.

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress, Jefferson Building.

As the size of its collection grew too large and diversified for the Dewey Decimal System, Library of Congress librarian Dr. Herbert Putnam developed a new classification system for large collections, especially university libraries with enormous amounts of research manuscripts. Called the LC (Library of Congress) system, it divides all knowledge into 21 large classes and assigns one capital letter to each, omitting only the letters I, O, W, X and Y. The letter N, for example, represents the broad division of the fine arts, with a second letter further classifying the original letter. NB represents books on sculpture, ND painting and NK decorative arts. The addition of a three-digit number further classifies the book. ND 813 G7, for example, is a book on painting and, more specifically, on the Spanish painter Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes.

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