Congress Buys Books from Jefferson

January 30, 1815
President James Madison Approved an Act of Congress to Purchase Thomas Jefferson’s Library

How important are libraries to you? Thomas Jefferson and the U.S. government saw a library as essential. That’s why on January 30, 1815, President James Madison approved an act of Congress appropriating $23,950 to purchase Thomas Jefferson’s personal library. The United States’ first Library of Congress was destroyed in 1814. After capturing Washington, D.C., that year, the British burned the U.S. Capitol where the 3,000-volume library was stored.

Thomas Jefferson, enjoying his retirement at Monticello, offered to sell his collection of 6,487 volumes to the Library Committee of Congress in order to rebuild the collection of the Congressional Library. His personal collection contained over twice the number of books Congress had lost in the fire. It also included a wider range of topics in several languages. The previous library covered only law, economics, and history. However, Jefferson said of his collection, “I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection.”

Jefferson’s collection was the seed from which the Library of Congress grew into the world’s largest library today. Accessible to all Americans through its Web sites and in three buildings on Capitol Hill, it continues to grow. Other than books, the collection includes millions of newspapers, maps, prints, photographs, sound recordings, films and digital materials, as well as the personal papers of hundreds of famous Americans including 23 U.S. presidents. If you have a shelf of books at home, think of it as the beginning of your own private library, like Jefferson’s. Be sure to visit your public and school libraries often. From the beginning, libraries have played a vital role in American democracy.