Preserved Thought

Library of Congress: The A – F card catalogs in 1984 (photo by Sally Reeder)

How many books do you have?  Don’t bother to get up and count them, just take a guess — fifty, a hundred, three hundred?  Whatever you think the number is, keep it in mind when I tell you that in 1814, Thomas Jefferson had 6,487 books.

We know that because after the original Congressional Library was set afire by the British during the War of 1812, the former U.S. President offered his collection to replace that loss.  Congress wasn’t sure they wanted all of Jefferson’s books, since some of them were in foreign languages and some were about art and cooking and botany — subjects that didn’t directly pertain to making laws, they felt.  Some were even deemed “immoral and irreligious.”

With some reluctance, a congressional committee offered Jefferson $23,950 for his collection, which was substantially less than it was worth.  Jefferson accepted their low-ball offer, though, and his books became the basis for today’s Library of Congress, which happens to be the world’s largest library.

Its website currently states that the collection has more than 34.5 million books.  There are also 13.4 million photographs, 5.4 million maps, not to mention millions of manuscripts and pieces of sheet music and newspapers and movie scripts.  The whole collection is approximately 152 million items.  And you thought that weird old guy down the street was a hoarder — psshhh!

By the way, that 152 million items is today’s count.  Several thousand more will be entering the inventory tomorrow, and the day after that, and so on.  All of those items are currently stored on about 838 miles of bookshelves — roughly the distance from St. Louis to Denver.  Can you imagine dusting those shelves?

What I find even more mind-boggling (and my mind is not easily boggled) is that the Library of Congress is expanding its collections beyond things recorded on paper and parchment.  It is now also the repository for digitally-created documents, including Twitter tweets.  OMG!!! 

It seems to me that what your friend had for dinner or what they think of that dreamy guy on American Idol is of dubious value, but our national library takes its mission seriously.  On its website, the Library of Congress asserts that it is “the world’s most comprehensive record of human creativity and knowledge.”  And that’s what all writing is, really:  a way to preserve thoughts.  Even if they aren’t particularly good thoughts.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Copyright Office (a part of the Library of Congress) is working on legislative solutions to make it possible to digitize out-of-print works.  The objective is to create a universal digital library, so that citizens can have instant access to works ranging from Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia to Mia Farrow’s autobiography.

When everything eventually does make the transition to digital, it will reduce the chances of a loss like the one the Library of Congress sustained on Christmas Eve, 1851:  There was another fire, this one caused not by the British, but by a faulty chimney flue.  Two-thirds of the collection went up in smoke, including most of Mr. Jefferson’s books —  and, presumably, several works on the subject of fire prevention.

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10 responses to “Preserved Thought

  1. I think I need to return to that fabulous library! I had forgotten we have Jefferson to thank for its resuscitation. Thank goodness he didn’t live to see the day that Snooki’s book is entered into its stacks.

    • Jefferson was a devoted bibliophile. It had taken him the better part of 50 years to accumulate the collection that he sold to Congress in January, 1815. He lived 11 more years, and at his death in 1826, his personal library had gone from zero to about a thousand books.

  2. Who knew? I went to the Library of Congress (a long time ago) and I didn’t come close to those #’s. I must have miscounted?!

    • Since you’ve been there, you’d probably agree that even though the Library of Congress isn’t considered one of D.C.’s major tourist attractions, it’s an interesting place to visit. In addition to all those books, they now have on display a first-edition Barbie Doll!

  3. Shirley Wainess

    Now this article can be submitted. Thank you so much. I learned something new today and am very appreciative.

    • It’s sort of scary to think that all of this stuff is being stored, too, but I guess that’s the eventual goal of a universal digital library. Thanks for checking in, Shirley.

  4. les Ungerleider

    worked at lc 1972-1974, interesting times in DC. worked on developing first on-line catalog.

    • What computer equipment were you using back in the early 1970s? Was storage on punch cards at that point, or those big tape reels? It’s hard for me to even imagine what it must have been like to take on that task! Thanks for your comment.

      • real time , online systems, big iron (ibm 360’s) cry terminals, scattered in the back offices, large disk packs. We put on the MARC data, there are some reports of what we did. Ask about Ervin comm. with watergate hearings.

        Les Ungerleider

  5. CRT terminals not cry

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