Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#85, May 2, 2000


by Marylaine Block

For revolutionaries, our founding fathers were a remarkably careful bunch, who liked to consult books before they did anything precipitate. That was easy enough when they met in Philadelphia for their deliberations, but far more challenging when they moved the government to a brand new capitol created in a swampy area unfondly known as Foggy Bottom. One of Congress' first orders of business was buying $5,000 worth of books, and ordering the building of a "suitable apartment for containing them."

So began the Library of Congress, which celebrated its 200th anniversary last week.

When the "suitable apartment" was burned by the British in 1814, in retaliation for our destruction of Canada's Parliament and national archives, Congress started over again, buying 6,400 books from Thomas Jefferson. The Library has grown a bit since then -- 119 million items the last time they counted. Not just books, either, though once the copyright law of 1873 required American publishers to deposit two copies of each copyrighted work with the Library, the book collection expanded by leaps and bounds.

In Treasures of the Library of Congress, Charles Goodrum traces the major expansion of the collection to a Librarian of Congress named Spofford, who started acquiring manuscripts, daguerrotypes, etchings, and even musical instruments. He bought entire collections of books and journals, and started collecting the documents of other nations and of the world's scientific societies.

By the time a new building opened in 1897, things were an ungodly mess, with thousands of pieces of sheet music, newspapers, photographs, diaries and manuscripts lying around in uncataloged mounds. The new Librarian, Herbert Putnam, brought order, and shaped the modern Library of Congress.

He believed that America's national library, unlike those of other nations, should be available to all our citizens. When told he shouldn't loan books because his job was to preserve them for posterity, he said "Nonsense, we are ourselves a posterity. Some respect is due to the ancestors who have saved for OUR use."

And what an incredible variety of resources the Library has saved for us! Someone researching the women's suffrage movement could choose among books, photographs of suffrage parades, political cartoons, letters from Susan B. Anthony, portraits of movement founders, political pamphlets and banners, scrapbooks, proceedings of women's conferences, and newsreel footage of suffragette parades and the passage of the 19th amendment.

Civil war enthusiasts can find maps used on the battlefields, the diaries and letters of generals and soldiers, the war photography of Mathew Brady, Confederate documents, Abraham Lincoln's own handwritten manuscript of the Gettysburg Address, and much more.

Not all of this was easily accessible to everyone, though, which is why the Library of Congress began creating talking books for the blind. When the Internet came along, the librarians saw an unparalleled opportunity to bring the Library's collections to those who would never be able to visit Washington, D.C.

The Library's American Memory Project on the web allows us to see and hear our history -- reports on the progress of the Freedmen's Bureau, photographs from the golden age of jazz, sheet music of the late 1800s (an 1882 song called "Guenther's Lung-Healer March" reminds us how commonplace tuberculosis was). There are early baseball cards, dance instruction manuals, historical maps, stereoscopic views of small town America, panoramic photos from 1851 up. There are movies of San Francisco before and after the great earthquake of 1906, first-person narratives of the early south, recordings of American folk music and Omaha Indian music, and photographs and oral histories of the Dust Bowl collected by artists and writers working for the WPA.

All of our lives and histories are part of the Library's collection of history, one way or another. Southerners, blacks, farmers, soldiers, Hispanics, women, factory workers, child laborers, actors, ranchers, quilt-makers, vaudevillians, presidents, and immigrants from all the countries of the world -- all these and more are remembered here.

We have mostly forgotten the way we were, forgotten how we all contributed to the fabric of America. But our Library remembers for us. Librarians lovingly mend and restore our heritage, deacidifying the crumbling paper of our books, transferring our earliest films from explosive nitrate stock to safety film, and placing much of it online for all to see.

Happy birthday, Library of Congress. And thanks for the memories.

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