Librarian of Congress James H. Billington
John Russell Young

John Russell Young (1840-1899)

7th Librarian of Congress 1897-1899

Journalist John Russell Young, the seventh Librarian of Congress, did not serve long in the office: from his confirmation by the Senate on July 1, 1897 until his death on January 17, 1899.  In this short period, he conscientiously undertook the formidable tasks of overseeing the move of the Library from the U.S. Capitol Building into its own building and of expanding and reorganizing the institution as it took on new responsibilities and faced new expectations.

Young was born on Nov. 20, 1840, in County Tyrone, Ireland, the son of George and Eliza Rankin Young.  Brought to the United States when he was less than a year old, he began his formal schooling in Philadelphia, then became a ward of an uncle in New Orleans, where he continued his public schooling.  He returned to Philadelphia at age 15, apprenticed himself to another relative who was a printer, and it was then, as his biographer John C. Broderick relates, that his "real education" began.  In August 1857, he secured a position as copyboy on the Philadelphia Press, beginning a long and fruitful association with its editor John W. Forney, who founded the Washington Chronicle in 1861.  Through Forney, who also served as Clerk of the House of Representatives at various periods between 1851 and 1868, Young learned about politics and developed his strong pro-Union and antislavery sentiments.

Following the Civil War,  at the age of 25, Young became the managing editor of Horace Greeley's New York Tribune.  Young resigned from the Tribune  in 1869, in part because he differed with Greeley about the 1868 Republican nominee: Young favored U.S. Grant, Greeley promoted Salmon P. Chase.

Throughout much of the 1870s, Young served as the New York Herald’s  European representative.  After Grant left office, he urged Young to accompany him on a well-publicized trip around the world.  Young agreed, and the result was the two-volume compilation, Around the World with General Grant (1879), an expansion of Young's dispatches to the Herald.  Grant became Young's advocate, and recommended to President James Garfield in 1881 that Young become American's minister to Japan.  Instead, it was President Chester A. Arthur who made Young an ambassador, appointing him as minister to China in 1882, a post in which Young served with distinction until 1885.

Young decided to return to his career in journalism and business in Philadelphia.  There he was active in the Union League, which he had helped found in 1862, edited the city's Memorial History, and continued to take part in Republican party politics.  He was president of the Union League for two years in the 1890s, during which time he arranged for a meeting of Confederate and Union military heroes at Gettysburg in April 1893.

Young's strong Republican connections, buttressed by his administrative capabilities, soon brought him the job of Librarian of Congress.  He and president-elect William McKinley became close after McKinley's election in 1896, and while others felt that Young's appointment to another diplomatic post might be best, it was the job of Librarian of Congress that loomed.  The Joint Committee on the Library's late 1896 hearings about the "condition" of the Library on the eve of its move into its new building made it clear that a new Librarian of Congress was needed to replace the 71-year old Ainsworth Rand Spofford.  McKinley nominated Young on June 30, and he was confirmed by the Senate on the same day.  The Washington Evening Star reported "a thorough and amicable understanding" between Young and Spofford, who indeed became Chief Assistant Librarian.

Young's business and political skills served him well during his brief term as Librarian of Congress.  So did his broader intellectual interests and experience as a diplomat.         He used his diplomatic ties, for example, to enlarge the Library's collections.  In February 1898, he sent a letter to U.S. diplomatic and consular representatives throughout the world, asking them to send "to the national library" newspapers, journals, pamphlets, manuscripts, broadsides, "documents illustrative of the history of those various nationalities  now coming to our shores to blend into our national life," and other categories of research materials, broadly summarized as "whatever, in a word, would add to the sum of human knowledge."  By the end of 1898, books and other materials had been obtained from eleven legations and seven consulates.

The new Librarian skillfully guided the institution's administrative reorganization and expansion.  He made many important professional appointments.  While himself a political appointee, Young was nonpartisan in his selections and successfully distanced the Library from world of partisan politics.  His appointees included Thorvald Solberg, the first register of copyrights, and catalogers J.C.M. Hanson and Charles Martel, who began reclassifying the collections after nearly a century of reliance on the classification scheme Thomas Jefferson provided to the Library along with his books.

Many of Young's administrative innovations were apt and farsighted.  Thorough a program of daily readings in a special "pavilion for the blind," in November of 1897, Young inaugurated what today is one of the Library's best known national activities: library service for the blind and physically handicapped.  He contemplated but did not establish a separate children's department.  In his 1897 Annual Report  he advocated the transfer of historical manuscripts from the Department of State to the Library and decried the use of cheap, nondurable paper by publishers, warning that many of the works coming into the Library "threaten in a few years to crumble into a waste heap, with no value as record."

Young also was sensitive to Spofford's struggles on behalf of the national library prior to the Library of Congress's occupancy of its own separate building.  Moreover, he shared Spofford's vision of the Library's future, commenting in his diary on June 12, 1898: "I am trying to build the library far into the future, to make it a true library of research."

Librarian Young's Annual Report  for 1898 demonstrates the broad range of his interests and his vision for the Library of Congress.  Its appendices include reports on special collections, e.g. the newly acquired Gardiner Greene Hubbard collection of engravings and art books, the "Jefferson Library," and the "Chinese collection;" an historical report on the "close relations" between the Library and the Smithsonian Institution; a list of the books received through the diplomatic and consular service; and his report on "the durability of paper."  It ends with what became Young's valedictory statement about the institution which he did so much to shape during his brief librarianship:  "With the considerate care of Congress and a due appreciation of what has been done and what may so readily be done by the American people, there is no reason why the Library of Congress should not rival those noble establishments of the Old World, whose treasures are a people's pride and whose growth is the highest achievement of modern civilization."

John Russell Young suffered a severe fall on Christmas Eve, 1898, and never fully recovered.  He died on January 17, 1899, after only nineteen months in office.

Young was married three times.  His first two marriages were marked by sadness.  He married Rose Fitzpatrick in 1864, but she was frequently ill until her death in 1881 and all three children of the marriage died in childhood.   He remarried in 1882, but second wife Julia died in Paris in October 1883, two months after giving birth to their son, who was placed in the care of his mother’s family, since Young was in Peking as minister to China.  Young and his third wife Mary, whom he married in 1890, were the parents of Gordon Russell Young, who was born in 1891 and became a prominent military engineer and a commissioner of the District of Columbia. (JYC)


Broderick, John C. "John Russell Young: The Internationalist as Librarian," Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 33 (April 1976): 116-49.

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