A Congress of Books

The Library of Congress was established on this day in 1800, President John Adams approving the spending of $5,000 on “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress.” The first library catalog, dated April 1802, listed 964 volumes; today, the library is the world’s largest, its Jefferson Building (one of three sites) regarded as one of America’s most beautiful decorated buildings, and a “brilliant witness to the alliance of literature and architecture against the transforming and destructive forces of time” (Daniel Boorstin, former head librarian at LofC).

Since the Civil War, the Library of Congress has been open to the public as well as the politicians, and has been a place for more than just books. In his introductory essay to America’s Library, a 200-year history of the institution, historian Edmund Morris catalogues some highlights from his browsing of the modern Library’s shelves and showrooms:

I have pored over fire insurance maps of midwestern villages, so minutely detailed that one can count the windows of every house and tell whether they were glazed or screened; the purplish pages of a run of the London Daily Mirror, published at the height of the Blitz and remarkable for the size of its laxative advertisements; boxes of Depression-era glossies by the great WPA photographer Marion Post Wolcott, some so freshly preserved they still give off a faint reek of the darkroom; obscene, uproarious, feverishly inventive counterculture “commix” from the radical sixties; politico-satirical poems from the age of Samuel Johnson…. I have attended biographical symposia, presidential dinners, folk festivals, cartoon exhibitions, academic councils, poet laureate recitations, and a sublime, evening-length traversal of Bach’s Art of the Fugue, arranged for the Library’s resident string quartet.

The politician-founders might wince that the LofC houses even the Bob Hope archive, anchored by a career file of some 85,000 jokes, many of these tied to the politics of the day. “Kennedy looked a little nervous,” Hope quipped after one of the 1960 presidential debates. “He’d never been allowed to stay up that late before.” “If you criticize Gorbachev too much,” he warned during the last years of the Cold War, “you’re kaputski. Kaputski — it’s an Old Russian word meaning, ‘Siberia is lovely this time of year.’ ” Some of Hope’s political jokes can resonate beyond their original era, unfortunately: “No one party can fool all of the people all of the time. That’s why we have two parties.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.