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  • Books, Maps, and Politics: A Cultural History of the Library of Congress, 1783–1861
  • Michael LaMagna
Books, Maps, and Politics: A Cultural History of the Library of Congress, 1783–1861. By Carl Ostrowski. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004. x, 261 pp. $39.95. ISBN 1-55849-433-2.

It would be difficult not to imagine the Library of Congress as a cultural institution or recognize it as the national library of the United States. However, its original function was to serve as a legislative library for members of Congress. In his study Books, Maps, and Politics: A Cultural History of the Library of Congress, 1783-1861, Carl Ostrowski examines the arduous process of creating a congressional library during a period marked by classical republican ideology.

Ostrowski begins his study by examining the two rejected proposals for a congressional library, first by James Madison and then by Elbridge Gerry. Madison saw a need for a collection of material that would chronicle the history of the United States as a means "of securing the territorial boundaries of the young nation against claims of foreign powers" (9). In addition to this purpose, the material would serve the needs of Congress in history, politics, law, and economics. Gerry wanted to develop a collection of reference resources for Congress to utilize in drafting legislation. Both proposals were rejected because of the expense related with creating such a library. As Ostrowski argues, the rejection was less about money and more about the culture of the period. The literary culture of the period was to serve one purpose, the diffusion of knowledge to produce an educated citizenry. This could be accomplished through the cheap print media of newspapers and pamphlets. A library funded by the federal government was "regarded as [a symbol] of the corrupting power of luxury to subvert republican institutions" (8).

The rest of this study describes the culture of the period as illustrated by these two failed proposals. The Library of Congress, which was founded in 1800, had fourteen years before another major debate over the institution developed. The library was destroyed during an attack on the Capitol by British troops, and the proposal to replace the collection by purchasing Thomas Jefferson's personal library collection met challenges. Jefferson's collection consisted of books on a wide range of subjects previously not represented. This episode again shows Ostrowski's central argument that the resistance to the library was based on classical republican ideology. Including works with no utilitarian purpose caused many in America to fear the new collection would be viewed as a luxury, which would threaten the republic. This fear of an expanding collection continued, with the debate centered on the creation of a national library. [End Page 199]

Throughout each chapter Ostrowski relates the collection of the Library of Congress with changing attitudes in American culture. He accomplishes this through examining the catalog of the Library of Congress and similar social libraries of the period. As Ostrowski shows, the collection of the Library of Congress was able to meet the needs of legislators; however, it did not include works for a greater audience. As the culture changed in relation to books and literature, the library's social atmosphere changed as well. Ostrowski concludes that as the culture of America moved toward a national library open to the public, the library's administration was caught in the old classical republican mentality. The Library of Congress would only move "towards a broadened role in the years following the Civil War" (209). The real strength of this study is placing the development of the Library of Congress into the greater context of the book culture of America.

Michael LaMagna
St. John’s University, New York


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