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American Treasures of the Library of Congress

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In 1800, Congress set aside $5,000 "for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress . . . and for fitting up a suitable apartment for containing them and for placing them therein." In 1815, Congress spent nearly $24,000 to buy Thomas Jefferson's library, comprising nearly twice as many books as those burned by the British near the end of the War of 1812. The appropriation of such large sums for books indicates that from the beginning, American statesmen have viewed a library not as a luxury, but as an essential working tool for the creation and maintenance of a healthy democracy.

The Library of Congress continues to receive money annually from Congress to purchase books and other library materials, but that amount is a small fraction of the worth of the Library's annual acquisitions. What had been a slow but steady growth of the collections in the nineteenth century exploded in 1870, the year that the Copyright Office was transferred into the Library of Congress. From then on, all creators wishing to protect their intellectual property rights by registering their created work with the office were now required to deposit a copy of that work in the Library. It is the cumulative record of copyright deposits that has so profoundly shaped the collections and transformed the congressional library into the memory bank of the nation. For it is not only writers who register for copyright, but composers, engravers, cartoonists, map makers, musical arrangers, photographers, filmmakers, recording artists, poster designers, architects, engineers, speechwriters, journalists, scriptwriters, advertising artists, comic book publishers, software writers, and many others. Their deposits have enriched the Library's record of American creativity immeasurably.

Donation is another invaluable source of the collections, especially in the area of personal papers and rare items. A third source of materials is transfer from government agencies. Many maps come this way, as well as works created for special government programs, such as the Federal Theatre Project Archives and the Farm Security Administration photographs from the 1930s and 1940s.

If Jefferson were alive today, his collection would no doubt include all the new media that have appeared since his time--sound recordings, films, photographs, and CD-ROMs. His conviction that the congressional library should be universal in scope continues to inform the daily decisions about what the Library acquires. For it is here that the nation's great experiment in democracy is recorded, and here that this generation and future generations can learn for themselves who they are and where they came from.

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