Library Fire

The Congressional Library Burns

Today, the Library of Congress celebrates its 217th birthday. On April 24, 1800, President John Adams approved the appropriation of $5,000 for the purchase of “such books as may be necessary for the use of congress.”

On December 24, 1851, the largest fire in the Library’s history destroyed 35,000 books, about two–thirds of the Library’s 55,000 book collection, including two-thirds of Jefferson’s original transfer. Congress in 1852 quickly appropriated $168,700 to replace the lost books, but not for the acquisition of new materials. This marked the start of a conservative period in the Library’s administration by librarian John Silva Meehan and joint committee chairman James A. Pearce, who worked to restrict the Library’s activities.

Congress in 1852 quickly appropriated $168,700 to replace the lost books, but not for the acquisition of new materials. This marked the start of a conservative period in the Library’s administration by librarian John Silva Meehan and joint committee chairman James A. Pearce, who worked to restrict the Library’s activities.

Between 1865 and 1870, Congress appropriated funds for the construction of the Thomas Jefferson Building, placed all copyright registration and deposit activities under the Library’s control, and restored the Library’s international book exchange. The Library also acquired the vast libraries of both the Smithsonian and historian Peter Force, strengthening its scientific and Americana collections significantly. By 1876, the Library of Congress had 300,000 volumes and was tied with the Boston Public Library as the nation’s largest library.

When the Library moved from the Capitol building to its new headquarters in 1897, it had over 840,000 volumes, 40% of which had been acquired through copyright deposit.

The 1851 fire was reported in Frederick Douglass’s newspaper on January 8, 1852. At the time of the fire, the library was still part of the Capitol building.

Burning of the Congressional Library

On Wednesday morning, Dec. 24th (1851), a fire was discovered in the Library rooms of the Capitol at Washington. The alarm was immediately given, and the Fire department, promptly on the spot, used their utmost exertions to arrest the flames, but unhappily failed to do so before the splendid collection of books upon the shelves, was more than half consumed. The morning was an extremely frosty one, and the chill air and the ice-bound water seriously impeded operations. The President, the members of the Cabinet and of Congress , lent every assistance; and by their direction, the roof connecting with the rotunds, was torn away, and the remainder of the building saved. The fire was brought under control about noon. The origin of it is unknown.

The Library occupied three apartments in the main building. The main room was a very large one, ninety-two by thirty-four feet, with a gallery round it. There were six recesses, or alcoves, on either side. The number of volumes upon the shelves was about 55,000; all of them works of the highest value, and many of them wholly irreplaceable.

This item, and others like it, can be found in Accessible Archive’s African American Newspapers Collection. This enormous collection of African American newspapers contains a wealth of information about cultural life and history during the 1800s and is rich with first-hand reports of the major events and issues of the day.
It will be remembered that one Congressional library shared an Alexandrian fate, when the British troops burnt the Capitol in 1814. As a nucleus of a fresh collection, the library of Thomas Jefferson, consisting of 7,000 volumes, was purchased in 1815, for $23,000. To this there has been a steady accession. Five thousand dollars have usually been appropriated by Congress each year for the purchase of highly valuable additions, and an average of 1,500 volumes has been procured annually. There were besides, the series of magnificent medals, struck by Denon, in commemoration of Napoleon’s campaigns, and presented by the Emperor to the American Government; maps; paintings and busts of the several Presidents. The collection of manuscripts was not of much importance.

While we have much reason to be grateful that the element spared the rest of the building, the loss to the library is almost irreparable. Young nations seldom have too many books, and American scholars have always lamented the scarcity and dispersion of their literary resources. The Congressional Library was one of the largest in the country. Those of Harvard University, and of the Library Company of Philadelphia, alone exceeded it, we believe, in point of numbers. But its peculiar value lay in its rich accumulation of historical materials; documents, tracts, speeches, pamphlets, reports, &c., &c., which made it almost indispensable at the seat of Government. No other collection can at all supply its place. – The libraries of the various departments, and of the Patent Office, will now doubtless be thrown open to those who have been entitled to use the larger collection.

Source: Frederick Douglass Paper, January 8, 1852

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