A Voluminous Celebration
9/26/2009

Forget partying like it's 1999. Researchers and historians around the globe have a better reason to celebrate Y2K—it's the 200th birthday of the Library of Congress.

The past two centuries have turned the library into a gold mine for people in search of practically anything. It began in 1800 as a modest medley of 740 books and three maps. It's ballooned to a colossal collection of 115 million books, recordings, maps, photographs and manuscripts.

Of course, the more stuff it accumulated, the more space the world's largest library needed. First housed in an office in the US Capitol, the LOC has sprawled into 530 miles of bookshelves and 22 reading rooms spanning three buildings.

That's enough to make any research buff rejoice. So the library has planned a year's worth of festivities.

On its official birthday, April 24, the LOC will unveil a commemorative stamp and coins, publish a book on the institution's history, host performances by "living legends," open new exhibits on Thomas Jefferson and on L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, and seal a time capsule.

Later events include symposiums, a gala in October and the publication of an Encyclopedia of the Library of Congress in December.

The party planners have extended the bicentennial's historic impact with several ongoing projects. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's "Favorite Poem" campaign will leave a vocal imprint on the country's literary history by recording Americans reading their favorite poems. "Local Legacies" will document American cultural traditions.

And with the National Digital Library Program, the library is not only collecting history, it's making history. Millions of materials are just a click away at the American Memory Web site memory.loc.gov.

The bicentennial is also a celebration of Jefferson, the LOC's father. His love of books and oft-quoted belief that there was "no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer" led him to champion the library's expansion. After the Brits torched the Capitol in 1814 and destroyed most of the original collection, Jefferson sold his personal 6,487-volume library to Congress for just under $24,000.

Unfortunately, Jefferson's books suffered the same fate during another Capitol blaze on Dec. 24, 1851—two-thirds of his volumes were lost. For the bicentennial, the LOC has launched a worldwide search to reconstruct Jefferson's library. (To learn about the discovery of four of Jefferson's scrapbooks, see our April issue's Branching Out.)

Can't make it to Washington, DC, before the festivities wind down in December? You can take a virtual tour of the LOC's current exhibitions at www.loc.gov/exhibits.

For more information about the bicentennial and the library's resources, contact the Library of Congress, 101 Independence Ave. SE, Washington, DC 20540-1022, (202) 707-5000, lcweb.loc.gov.

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