Library of Congress

The Library of Congress: An Overdue Opening

“Students in the Reading Room of the Library of Congress with the Librarian of Congress, Herbert Putnam, watching” (Photo Source: Library of Congress) Johnston, Frances Benjamin, photographer. Students in the Reading Room of the Library of Congress with the Librarian of Congress, Herbert Putnam, watching. Washington D.C, 1899. [?] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/98502945/.

November 1, 1897 was a cold, rainy Monday in the District. “This may not have been propitious weather for some occasions, but it was hailed with delight by a certain class of persons when they arose that morning. They were not human ducks, either, for the affair in which they wished to participate was sufficient evidence that they were intensely human, and of an intellectual type.” This was the day that the new Congressional Library was to open, and allow eager readers into the Beaux-Arts style building for the first time.

Chuting Books to the Congressional Library

“Washington D.C., Library of Congress 1897-1910.” (Photo Source: Library of Congress) Detroit Publishing Co., Copyright Claimant, and Publisher Detroit Publishing Co. Washington, D.C., Library of Congress. District of Columbia United States, Washington D.C, None. [Between 1897 and 1910] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/

By 1875, the old Congressional Library had completely exhausted its shelf space, and the Library's new building was not completed until February 1897. Although the 20 year wait for the physical structure was a long one, it seemed that the months between the building’s completion in February 1897 and its opening day on November 1, 1897 were the longest of all. Throughout these nine months, librarians and engineers joined together to try and solve one major problem: how would they move all of the Library’s contents the quarter of a mile distance from the Capitol to the new library without “loss, damage, and confusion.” The answer? Book chutes.

“The Book-Delivery System at the Congressional Library, Washington,” 1897 (Photo Source: The Library of Congress). “The Book-Delivery System at the Congressional Library, Washington.” 1897. Still image. 1897. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/97517986/.

The Congressional Library’s Underground Book Tunnel

By 1875, the Congressional Library in the Capitol Building had outgrown its shelf space, forcing librarians to store incoming books, maps, music, photographs, and documents in stacks on the Library floor. Eventually Congress approved a plan to move its Library into a new structure that would be built across from the Capitol, and by the end of the summer of 1897, all 800,000 books had been moved into the newly opened Library of Congress building, known today as the Jefferson Building. While the books now had plenty of space, a new challenge presented itself: how would the congressmen have easy access to their library if it was now a quarter of a mile away? The solution was a technological creation that seems futuristic at the very least: a special underground tunnel full of conveyor belts and pneumatic tubes that connected the two buildings, and had books zooming to and fro under First Street SE for nearly the next century.

Literary Neighbors: The Folger and the Library of Congress

The lot where the Folger would eventually be built, with the Library of Congress in the background. Image courtesy of LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection

After years of acquiring important books and manuscripts, and a few more years planning and acquiring land, the Folger Shakespeare Library was almost bumped out of Washington thanks to a bill to expand the Library of Congress. But instead of fighting the other library, the two would work in close cooperation to ensure the Folger Shakespeare Library came to Washington and flourished.

The Engrossed Declaration of Independence, circa. 1776 (source: Library of Congress)

Lost from History: Josias Wilson King

Josias Wilson King is a name that would probably not ring any bells. In fact, even when Google-searched, it takes a great amount of effort to find much if anything about him. In life, however, he interacted with some of the most prominent men in American history – Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – was involved in the first scandal in the Library of Congress’ history, and helped to save America’s keystone documents.

Damaged records from the 1890 census. Most of these records ended up being destroyed. (Image source: National Archives)

Just Stick It in the Basement: Before the Archives

Today, the founding documents of America - the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights - are on display at the Charters of Freedom exhibit in the Rotunda of the National Archives. Tourists from across America and the world make pilgrimages to see the most revered documents in American history. Extensive preservation measures have been put in place. But this wasn’t always the case. For most of our nation’s history, these charters, now considered priceless, were kept with the United States’ other government documents - that is, shoved wherever officials could find space. Before the National Archives was founded in 1934, these documents were stored essentially at random, in basements, on walls, or even piled in hallways.

Bread Kneaded on Capitol Hill

Union soldiers billeted at the Capitol practice drills in 1861. (Photo source: Library of Congress)

As congressmen convened for a special session in July of 1861, they were welcomed into the Capitol by the smell of baking bread. Just months into the Civil War, the building had already seen thousands of troops pass through its doors, and now it was the site of one of the largest bakeries the world had ever known. Twenty ovens, each with the capacity of holding hundreds of loaves of bread, were housed in the basement, and multitudes of men spent hours tending yeast and kneading dough. Having been in recess for less than four months, the congressmen were astounded, and some even annoyed, with this new mammoth bakery occupying their space. But a lot had changed for the country – and for the Capitol – in that short period of time.

Portrait of Lead Belly, National Press Club, Washington, D.C., between 1938 and 1948 (Photo: William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress)

Impressions of Washington: Lead Belly's "Bourgeois Blues"

Huddie William Ledbetter (January 20, 1888 – December 6, 1949), better known as Lead Belly, was a legendary folk and blues musician known for his virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar, powerful vocals and the huge catalog of folk standards he introduced. Inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, artists from Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin to Nirvana and the White Stripes have covered his songs and recognized his musical influence.

Somewhat less remembered, even locally, is Lead Belly's "Bourgeois Blues," a song written about his first visit to Washington, D.C. in 1937 — an incisive indictment of the city's racial segregation conveyed in 3 minutes of rippling 12-string blues.

Woody Guthrie, 1943 (Library of Congress)

How Washington Saved Folk Music

Sure, it seems a bit counter-intuitive. How could the favorite subject of protest music also be its greatest protector? Well, believe it. If it wasn't for Alan Lomax and the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress there might not be a Woody Guthrie — and thus by extension — a Bob Dylan or a Bruce Springsteen, and well … you get the rest. In March 1940, Lomax arranged for Guthrie to travel to Washington, D.C. to record traditional ballads and his original songs at the Department of the Interior recording lab. What emerged from three days of sessions is one of the purest documents of Americana ever released.