In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Histories of the Library of Congress
  • Jane Aikin (bio)

Much has been written about the Library of Congress (LC), but relatively little of it consists of the scholarly historical appraisals that are the primary focus here. The emphasis is on book-length treatments and significant articles; with limited space, it is impossible to even reference the numerous theses, memoirs, articles, guides, pictorial works, and exhibition catalogs as well as most of the descriptions of individual collections and individuals. A great deal of writing about the Library's history has come from the Library itself. One of the most important treasures is the Library of Congress Information Bulletin (1942–); its brief, fact–filled articles are gems recoverable chiefly through patience and indexes. Another publication, the Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, which began in 1943 as the Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions and ceased publication with the 1983 volume, is likewise valuable for its specialized articles, especially the detailed descriptions of the collections.

The first century of the Library's existence (1800–1900) produced nothing in the way of a full-length history. But in July 1900 Herbert Putnam, Librarian of Congress from 1899 to 1939, hired William Dawson Johnston, a former history instructor at Brown University, as the first assistant in the Division of Bibliography. His assignments included editing a series titled Contributions to American Library History. The first volume, History of the Library of Congress, Volume I, 1800–1864, Johnston's own history of the Library, appeared in 1904. He planned three volumes, with the second volume covering 1864 to 1900 and the third the history of other federal libraries.1 The first volume, the only one published, reproduced "all documents of importance which relate to the history of the national library" (some complete, some excerpted), and the product seemed to some critics to be "a collection of documents strung together on a rather thin thread of narrative."2 But Johnston's history also contained, as he noted, "many picturesque incidents, many antiquarian details, many expressions of contemporary opinion, which in the history of another library might be of merely local interest." That detail, together with its [End Page 5] important documentary and tabular materials, assures the History continued prominence as a record of the Library's early years.3

In retrospect, Johnston's decision to end his first volume with 1864 was unfortunate, for it left untold the story of the remarkable ascendance of the Library in the late nineteenth century. Apart from the acquisition of Thomas Jefferson's books in 1815, the years prior to 1864 seemed undistinguished, and the reviewers of Johnston's book took notice. While one praised the book's attention to both political history and biography as well as its exposition of the history of the library and the grounds for its future development, others emphasized the failure to realize the promise of Jefferson's insistence that "there is no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer." They deplored early congressional unwillingness to support the purchase of notable collections, and one even commented that it was surprising that the Library had attained its current stature. Johnston's history also revealed that the Library had been hostage on occasion to partisan politics and sometimes suffered under humdrum administration. By ending the volume with 1864, Johnston could not provide the happy ending that the administrations of Librarians Ainsworth R. Spofford (1864–97), John Russell Young (1897–99), and Putnam gave the Library's first century, and the reviewers seemed to feel in some measure shortchanged.4

By the late 1920s a good number of written, on-the-spot observations of the LC began to appear. The line between memoir and history in this body of work is thin, with many of the texts marked by praise—sometimes hyperbolic—for Putnam's accomplishments. Most notably, on Putnam's thirtieth anniversary as Librarian former LC staff members William Warner Bishop and Andrew Keogh compiled a volume entitled Essays Offered to Herbert Putnam by His Colleagues and Friends on His Thirtieth Anniversary as Librarian of Congress 5 April 1929. In generally brief articles many of Putnam's associates aired their memories...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 5-24
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.