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Books, Maps, and Politics

A Cultural History of the Library of Congress, 1783-1861

Carl Ostrowski

Publication Year: 2004

Delving into the origins and development of the Library of Congress, this volume ranges from the first attempt to establish a national legislative library in 1783 to the advent of the Civil War. Carl Ostrowski shows how the growing and changing Library was influenced by—and in turn affected—major intellectual, social, historical, and political trends that occupied the sphere of public discourse in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America. The author explores the relationship between the Library and the period's expanding print culture. He identifies the books that legislators required to be placed in the Library and establishes how these volumes were used. His analysis of the earliest printed catalogs of the Library reveals that law, politics, economics, geography, and history were the subjects most assiduously collected. These books provided government officials with practical guidance in domestic legislation and foreign affairs, including disputes with European powers over territorial boundaries. Ostrowski also discusses a number of secondary functions of the Library, one of which was to provide reading material for the entertainment and instruction of government officials and their families. As a result, the richness of America's burgeoning literary culture from the 1830s to the 1860s was amply represented on the Library's shelves. For those with access to its Capitol rooms, the Library served an important social function, providing a space for interaction and the display and appreciation of American works of art. Ostrowski skillfully demonstrates that the history of the Library of Congress offers a lens through which we can view changing American attitudes toward books, literature, and the relationship between the federal government and the world of arts and letters.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

It is a pleasure to acknowledge here the many people and institutions who have assisted me in completing this book. My primary debt is to Ezra Greenspan, my adviser at the University of South Carolina, who first suggested to me the possibilities of situating Library of Congress history within the context ofthe history ofthe book in America and who...

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Introduction: The Library and the History of the Book

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pp. 1-6

The Library of Congress occupies a crossroads in American life where the nation’s literary and political cultures intersect. Because of the Library’s status as a national, governmental institution devoted to the collection and preservation of books, maps, and other materials, its history provides a revealing lens through which to study American attitudes...

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Chapter One. Books, Classical Republicanism, and Proposals for a Congressional Library

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pp. 7-38

The Library of Congress today is an immense institution whose place on the American cultural scene is unquestioned. As of the year 2000, the two hundredth anniversary of its foundation, the Library housed some 119 million items in 460 languages on a universal array of subjects.1 Copyright deposits and congressional appropriations ensure its...

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Chapter Two. Madison's Vision Realized, 1800–1812

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pp. 39-72

Once the Library of Congress had been founded in 1800, it followed along the developmental lines sketched out by James Madison in 1783. Congress collected books in a few well defined subject areas to assist it in carrying out its official duties. Under the continuing influence of the tenets of classical republicanism, utility was the rationale for the Library,...

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Chapter Three. Thomas Jefferson, George Watterston, and the Library, 1814–1829

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pp. 73-105

An attack on the Capitol in Washington by British troops in 1814 resulted in the nearly complete destruction of the Library of Congress. The subsequent purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s library to become a new Library of Congress in 1815 has been treated by Library of Congress historians as the start of a new era for the institution, which in some ways...

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Chapter Four. Jacksonian Democracy and the Library, 1829–1843

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pp. 106-144

The election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency in 1828 marked a shift in American political culture that is evident in the history of the Library of Congress, most visibly in the dismissal of George Watterston and the appointment of John Silva Meehan to the post of Librarian. The change in stewardship from a novelist with culturally nationalistic...

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Chapter Five. James Alfred Pearce, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Question of a National Library, 1844–1859

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pp. 145-178

In the 1840s and 1850s American scholars, librarians, and journalists continued to bemoan the country’s lack of library resources and pressed Congress to establish a national library with comprehensive collections and liberal access policies. But their attention was no longer focused exclusively on the Library of Congress. The story of the Library...

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Chapter Six. Congressmen Use Their Library, 1840–1859

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pp. 179-209

Because James Alfred Pearce and his colleagues in Congress elected not to turn the Library of Congress into a national library in the 1840s and1850s, the institution’s main users continued to be not scholars or the public but the congressmen and government officials for whom it had been founded, as well as their family members and friends. Politically,...

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Conclusion: The Library before and after the Civil War

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pp. 210-215

After the Civil War, the Library of Congress entereda period of unprecedented growth under the leadership of Ainsworth Rand Spofford, who joined the institution in 1861 as Assistant Librarian, became Librarian of Congress in 1864, and continued in that position until 1897. By virtue of his encyclopedic knowledge of books and dynamic...


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pp. 217-220


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pp. 221-252


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pp. 253-261

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613761441
E-ISBN-10: 1613761449
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558494336
Print-ISBN-10: 1558494332

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2004

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Subject Headings

  • Library of Congress -- History -- 18th century.
  • National libraries -- Washington (D.C.) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Library of Congress -- History -- 19th century.
  • National libraries -- Washington (D.C.) -- History -- 18th century.
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