TCS: The Library of Congress and the First Librarian

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“The library is the temple of learning, and learning
has liberated more people than all the wars in history.”

 – Carl T. Rowan, journalist and Federal official
during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations



The Jefferson Building, Library of Congress

The Library of Congress

The Library of Congress began in 1800 in a single room inside the U.S. Capitol, but now occupies three separate buildings on Capitol Hill. The Thomas Jefferson Building (1897) is the original Library of Congress building. The John Adams Building was built in 1938 and the James Madison Memorial Building was completed in 1981. Other facilities include the High Density Storage Facility (2002) at Fort Meade, Md., and the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation (2007) in Culpeper, Va.

An agency of the legislative branch of the U.S. government, the Library includes several internal divisions, including the Office of the Librarian, Congressional Research Service, U.S. Copyright Office, Law Library of Congress, Library Services, and National and International Outreach.

The John Adams Building, Library of Congress

It is the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States.

Today’s Library of Congress is a priceless resource, with a collection of more than 164 million items, including more than 38.6 million cataloged books and other print materials in 470 languages; over 70 million manuscripts; the largest rare book collection in North America; and the world’s largest collection of legal materials, films, maps, sheet music and sound recordings.

In 2016, the Library employed 3,149 permanent staff members, and operated with a total fiscal 2016 appropriation of $642.04 million, including the authority to spend $42.13 million in receipts.

The James Madison Memorial Building, Library of Congress

James Madison is credited with the idea for creating a congressional library, which he first proposed in 1783. The Library of Congress was established April 24, 1800, when President John Adams signed an act of Congress providing for the transfer of the seat of government from Philadelphia to the new capital city of Washington. Part of the legislation appropriated $5,000 “for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress . . . and for fitting up a suitable apartment for containing them . . .” Books were ordered from London and the collection, consisting of 740 books and 3 maps, was housed in the new Capitol.

James Madison (left), John Adams (center) and Thomas Jefferson (right)

President Thomas Jefferson played an important role in establishing the structure of the Library of Congress. On January 26, 1802, he signed a bill that allowed the president to appoint an overseer of the Library of Congress, the Librarian of Congress, and for the establishment of a Joint Committee on the Library to regulate and oversee the Library. The new law also extended to the president and vice president the ability to borrow books.

The Great Hall of the Jefferson Building, Library of Congress

John James Beckley (1757-1807)

On January 26, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson asked his friend and political ally John Beckley — who was already the Clerk of the House of Representatives — to fill the post. John J. Beckley was officially appointed as the first Librarian of Congress on January 29, 1802. It was a part-time job which paid two dollars per day, so he also continued to serve as the Clerk of the House of Representatives, filling both positions until his death in 1807.

Beckley was born in England on August 4, 1757, and came to Virginia at age eleven as a scribe for John Clayton, clerk of court for Gloucester County and a well-known botanist.  Following Clayton’s death in 1774, he served in several important political positions, including clerk of the Virginia House of Delegates.  After the seat of Virginia government was moved from Williamsburg to Richmond, he became one of Richmond’s first city councilmen and then its second mayor.

Virginia Capitol Building, designed by Thomas Jefferson

When the federal government was established in New York in 1789, Beckley was elected the first clerk of the House of Representatives.  He was an ardent “Democratic-Republican,” and closely associated with Thomas Jefferson.  In 1791, just before Congress moved from New York to Philadelphia, he married Maria Prince, and they moved to Philadelphia, where Beckley was active in city, state, and national politics.  He and Maria lost several children; only Alfred, born in 1802, the year after the move to Washington, survived.

In Philadelphia, Beckley campaigned for Jefferson and other Republican candidates, attacking the Federalists, particularly Alexander Hamilton, in the press and through writings published under pseudonyms like “Americanus.”  The Federalists removed him from office when they were elected in 1787, but with the election of Jefferson as President in 1801, he was re-elected as Clerk of the House of Representatives. The Beckley family moved to the new capital city of Washington, where he became involved in local as well as national politics.

The Reading Room of the Jefferson Building, Library of Congress

The major decisions about the Library were made by the Joint Committee on the Library, not by the Librarian.  Beckley and his assistants, however, carried out the wishes of the Joint Committee and particularly of President Jefferson, who took a keen interest in the Library and frequently provided advice regarding purchases. Jefferson also became involved in the ordering and shipping of the books themselves, on at least one occasion having to straighten out confusion resulting from the mixing of his personal book orders from Europe with those of the Library.

Beckley prepared the Library’s first printed catalog, which was printed by William Duane in April 1802.  The Catalogue of the Books, Maps, and Charts Belonging to the Library of the Two Houses of Congress lists the collection of 964 volumes according to their size and appends a list of nine maps and charts.

Engraved by Dutch map publisher Cornelius de Jode in 1578, Library of Congress

Even with his many other duties and activities, Beckley found time to deal with Library matters, using help from clerks assigned to him in his House of Representatives position. Significantly, he also began soliciting donations to the Library from personal friends, including Benjamin Rush.  Another friend, Samuel H. Smith, editor of the National Intelligencer, took note of this trend and encouraged it in his newspaper in articles on February 13, 1803, and again on April 11, 1806: “Gentlemen desirous of having the publications exhibited in this public and conspicuous place may forward them, to Mr. Beckley the librarian, who will thankfully receive, and carefully preserve them, for the use of the Representative Bodies of the American nation.”

Beckley also personally escorted distinguished visitors through the Capitol and showed off the Library’s quarters.  In June 1804, Charles Willson Peale, who was accompanying the famous German naturalist Baron Alexander von Humboldt, recorded in his diary: “We went first to the Library where Mr. Beckley received us with politeness… The Library is a spacious and handsome Room, and although lately organized, already contained a number of valuable books in the best taste of binding.”

The Library lost this impressive room in December 1805 when the House of Representatives took it back and assigned the Library to a former committee room.  In the same month, the Library had to weather its first scandal when Beckley fired one of his clerks, Josias Wilson King, a Federalist who three years earlier had sought the job of Librarian for himself.  King quickly wrote to the House, accusing Beckley of failing to live up to an earlier promise to share the Librarian’s salary with him or to provide additional compensation in accordance with an 1804 authorization by the House of Representatives. Beckley was exonerated, but King’s accusations were preserved in the Library’s early record books.

During the last years of Beckley’s involvement with the Library, Senator Samuel Latham Mitchill enthusiastically proposed and pushed through the first annual appropriation for the purchase of books, and then personally ordered many of them.

The Thomas Jefferson Building, with the John Adams Building behind it

John Beckley died on April 8, 1807.  His son Alfred inherited a large tract of unsettled land in what today is West Virginia and built the first house in a village that became the city of Beckley, named so by Alfred to honor his father.

John Beckley’s part in developing and expanding the library, and his help in gaining public awareness and approval, created a firm foundation for the librarians who followed him to build on, making the Library of Congress the world-class institution that it is today.



Library of Congress:

John J. Beckley:

  • Berkeley, Edmund and Dorothy Smith Berkeley, “John Beckley: The First Librarian of Congress,”   The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 32 (April 1975): 83-117
  • Berkeley, Edmund and Dorothy Smith Berkeley,  John Beckley: Zealous Partisan in a Nation Divided (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1973)



About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for over 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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8 Responses to TCS: The Library of Congress and the First Librarian

  1. Malisha says:

    I used to live in DC and I spent huge amounts of time in the Library of Congress, at first doing research on the law that applied to my own ridiculous situation (a corrupt snarl of cover-up litigation originating in a state circuit court but ending up everywhere) and then doing research on the civil rights act, the Dred Scott case, and the DeShaney case, as if for a thesis but ultimately for “nothing.” All the staff of the law reading room knew me but nobody else did. All I ever did was show up, grab volumes off the shelves, read, take notes and leave. I found, after a while, however, that I developed “Library of Congress Disease.” This consisted of two symptoms: (1) I would find a US Supreme Court case that had not been overturned or modified that supported one of my positions four-square and even eloquently; and (2) I would wake up when the lights signaled the imminent closing of the reading room, with deep red marks in my face where my previous and undetected instantaneous descent into unconsciousness had let my head fall on the book. One of these red marks was a “scarface” stripe that lasted for weeks and made me look like a battered wife.
    Years later, describing “Library of Congress Disease” to a psychiatrist, I observed that I had always been tired when this happened and I probably just succumbed to fatigue while reading cases. He said, “It sounds more like a dissociative thing to me.” Then I realized, suddenly, that he was right: when I saw that there was serious uncontested support for my cause, though not for ME, I checked out for a few hours; it wasn’t a good thing to stay conscious and really process the conclusions that would arise from that revelation.

    • wordcloud9 says:

      I got interested in the Library of Congress at an early age because my Great Aunt Flo worked there way back when – she was the relative everybody in the family called to get an attribution for a quote, or just about any other information – she was our family “Internet” long before anyone had ever heard of Google.

  2. Malisha says:

    I have forgotten what “TCS” means.

  3. ann summers says:

    along with the National Archives, the best reason to live in DC…
    I first learned that there was a Librarian of Congress with the biography of Daniel Boorstin

    • wordcloud9 says:

      Hi ann –

      Not to mention the Smithsonian is also there – another fantastic huge repository of knowledge and artifacts.

  4. Malisha says:

    One time during the late 90s I got locked IN the Library of Congress. It seems that Hillary Clinton was going to appear there for something and the Secret Service locked up all but one door (where she would enter with her entourage) and the rest of the people who decided to leave would have to wait until the fanfare was over. I was shocked and expressed my dismay.

    • wordcloud9 says:

      No matter who is in the Oval Office, total chaos reigns on Los Angeles freeways whenever the Commander-in-Chief is in town. I’ve been stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic more than once as helicopters hover back and forth, while the Motorcade whizzes by on the opposite side of the freeway, completely unimpeded.

      When the Secret Service is guarding a person, everybody else just has to wait it out.

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