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What is the Library of Congress? Part XI

Dutch exchanged students Veerle Voesten (R) and Dorinde Van Andel (L), both of Groningn, Holland, tour the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building October 8, 2012 in Washington, D.C.
Dutch exchanged students Veerle Voesten (R) and Dorinde Van Andel (L), both of Groningn, Holland, tour the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building October 8, 2012 in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

“In its 1876 survey of the libraries of the United States, the U.S. Bureau of Education listed the rapidly growing Library of Congress and the Boston Public Library as the two largest libraries in the United States, with approximately 300,000 volumes apiece,” as recounted by John Y. Cole. By 1897, when the Library of Congress moved from the Capitol across the east plaza to the new Library of Congress building, now known as the Jefferson Building, it had 840,000 volumes.

Cole wrote its “collections ranked first among American libraries in size and scope.” Over 40% of its volumes and at least 90% of its “map, music, and graphic arts collections had been acquired through copyright deposit.” Copyright deposits included Civil War photographs by Mathew Brady (1822-1896) and the first motion pictures.

When the Library of Congress moved into its new building, separate custodial units were established for the special collections formed primarily through copyright deposit---maps, music, and graphic arts. [Ainsworth Rand] Spofford's successors as Librarian of Congress hired subject specialists to develop these and other collections and persuaded Congress to begin appropriating substantial funds for the purchase of research materials for all collections. Today, copyright is still one of the Library's major acquisitions sources, but between the years 1865 and 1897, it played a crucial role in the development of the Library of Congress into a national institution.

In 1896, shortly before move, the Joint Library Committee held hearings about the condition of the Library of Congress and to consider its reorganization. The American Library Association (A.L.A.) sent six witnesses, including future Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam (1861-1895) from the Boston Public Library and Melvil Dewey (1851-1931) from New York State Library.

Cole related they “argued that the national services of the Library should be greatly expanded. Dewey felt that the Library of Congress now had the opportunity to act as a true national library, which he defined as ‘a center to which the libraries of the whole country can turn for inspiration, guidance, and practical help, which can be rendered so economically and efficiently in no other possible way.’”

These hearings led to the passage of the Legislative Appropriations Act (1897), which authorized the reorganization of the Library of Congress (L.O.C.). The size of the staff grew from 42 to 108.

As Cole explained, “new administrative units were established for the reading room, the art gallery (graphic arts), maps and charts, and the cataloging, copyright, manuscripts, music, and periodicals departments. During his thirty-two years in office, and with the consent of the Joint Library Committee, Librarian Spofford had assumed full responsibility for directing the Library's affairs. This authority formally passed to the Office of the Librarian of Congress in the 1897 reorganization, for the Librarian explicitly was assigned sole responsibility for making the ‘rules and regulations for the government’ of the Library, including the selection of its staff. The same reorganization act stipulated that the president's appointment of a Librarian of Congress thereafter was to be approved by the Senate.”

William McKinley (1843-1901), President of the United States of America (1897-1901), appointed a new Librarian of Congress to supervise the L.O.C.’s move from the Capitol and implement the reorganization. John Russell Young (1840-1899), the seventh Librarian of Congress, served from July 1, 1897 until his death in January of 1899.

An experienced journalist and diplomat, Young used his contacts in the diplomatic corps to acquire books and other materials from foreign countries. By the end of 1898, eleven embassies and seven consulates had responded to his appeals. He also honored Thomas Jefferson’s legacy by bringing together Jefferson’s books into a single room and commissioning a report on the Jefferson Library that was included in the L.O.C.’s 1898 annual report.

Young’s reorganization included the appointment of Thorvald Solberg (1852-1949), the first Register of Copyrights (1897-1930), and catalogers James C.M. Hanson (1864-1943) and Charles Martel (1860-1945).

Born Karl Hanke, the Swiss immigrant adopted the name as Charlemagne's grandfather, Charles Martel, Mayor of the Palace, who led Frankish and Burgundian forces to victory over an invading army from the Umayyad Caliphate in the Battle of Tours in 732 A.D. Martel had joined the staff of The Newberry Library in 1892, where he worked for Dr. William F. Poole (1821-1894) – the first Librarian of the Chicago Public Library (1874-1887) and the First Librarian of The Newberry Library (1887-1994) – and J.C.M. Hanson. The latter left the Newberry for the University of Wisconsin in 1893. Young recruited Hanson to become Chief Cataloguer and he in turn recruited Martel to help him in 1897.

Hanson and Martel began to reclassify the collections after nearly a century of reliance on Jefferson’s classification. While he was a political appointee like all his predecessors, Young was non-partisan in his appointments.

Cole recounted that “Young also inaugurated what today is one of the Library's best known national activities, library service for the blind and physically handicapped. In November of 1897 the Library began a program of daily readings for the blind in a special ‘pavilion for the blind’ complete with its own library. In 1913 Congress directed the American Printing House for the Blind to begin depositing embossed books in the Library, and in 1931 a separate appropriation was authorized for providing ‘books for the use of adult blind residents of the United States.’”

Young’s successor, Putnam, who served from 1899 to 1939, built on this legacy. On May 16, 1929, the A.L.A. Committee on Work for the Blind met at the Library of Congress. Mrs. Grace Davis, the Chairman of the Committee was absent, and Adelia M. Hoyt, a L.O.C. staff member, presided. She recorded the proceedings as “Work with Blind Round Table,” in Bulletin of the American Library Association, Volume 23, No. 8, Papers and Proceedings: Fifty-First Annual Conference (August, 1929), pages 367-370.

Through her, the Service for the Blind – now the National Library Service (N.L.S.) – in the Library of Congress reported that demand for its services had increased 45% since 1925. The Library of Congress gained books for the blind through three channels.

First, there were publishing houses that donated books. Second, the Foundation for the Blind solicited donations from private citizens.

Third, Red Cross volunteers transcribed books by hand at the Library of Congress and presented some of these books to the L.O.C. In 1928, Red Cross volunteers transcribed over 1,300 volumes, of which they donated less than 40% to the L.O.C. They donated the rest to twenty-five libraries in the United States and one in the Philippines.

J. Robert Atkinson (1887-1964), founder of The Universal Braille Press, which evolved into the Braille Institute of America, lobbied Congress to pass a law to expand federal funding for literature for blind adults. Congresswoman Ruth Baker Pratt (1877-1965) and Senator Reed Owen Smoot (1862-1941) sponsored the Pratt-Smoot Act (1931), signed into law by President Herbert Hoover (1874-1964).

The law authorized an annual appropriation of $100,000 to be administered by the Library of Congress (L.O.C.) for the production of embossed books for adults.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That there is hereby authorized to be appropriated annually to the Library of Congress, in addition to appropriations otherwise made to said Library, the sum of $100,000, which sum shall be expended under the direction of the Librarian of Congress to provide books for the use of the adult blind residents of the United States, including the several States, Territories, insular possessions, and the District of Columbia. Sec. 2. The Librarian of Congress may arrange with such libraries as he may judge appropriate to serve as local or regional centers for the circulation of such books, under such conditions and regulations as he may prescribe. In the lending of such books preference shall at all times be given to the needs of blind persons who have been honorably discharged from the United States military or naval service. Approved, March 3, 1931. Chap. 400. Sec. 1, 46 Stat. 1487, 71st Congress

This was the origin of the L.O.C.’s Books for the Blind program. The law was amended in 1933 to cover Talking Books as well as embossed books. Today, over 100 libraries across the United States of America are affiliated with the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (N.L.S.), part of the Library of Congress.


Happy Birthday, Eamon! Uncle Sean loves you.

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