Jefferson's Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress

Contents - Preface - Library of Congress - Collections
Buildings - Librarians - Further Reading - Concordance


The office of Librarian of Congress, like the Library of Congress itself, has been shaped by tradition, politics, and strong personalities. Although the Library of Congress was established in 1800, the office of Librarian was not created until 1802. This 1802 law stipulated that the Librarian of Congress was to be appointed by the president---not by the Congress. In fact, Congress had no formal role in the appointment process until 1897, when the Senate gained the privilege of confirming the president's selection. No special qualifications are prescribed by law for the job of Librarian of Congress. Nor is a term of office specified, even though in the twentieth century the precedent seems to have been established that a Librarian of Congress is appointed for life. The office of the Librarian of Congress carried little formal authority until 1897, when the same law that gave the Senate the power to approve a president's nomination of the Librarian gave the Librarian sole responsibility for making the institution's rules and regulations and appointing its staff.

John J. Beckley (1802-1807)

On January 29, 1802, Pres. Thomas Jefferson appointed the Clerk of the House of Representatives, his political ally John J. Beckley, to serve concurrently as the first Librarian of Congress. Beckley was born in England on August 4, 1757, and was sent to Virginia eleven years later to work as a scribe for a mercantile firm. He was the first Clerk of the House of Representatives, as well as the first Librarian of Congress. His salary as Librarian could not exceed two dollars a day. John Beckley died on April 8, 1807. His son Alfred inherited a large tract of unsettled land in what today is West Virginia and built the first house in a village that became the city of Beckley, named so by Alfred to honor his father.

Patrick Magruder (1807-1815)

After Beckley's death, President Jefferson considered separating the offices of Clerk of the House of Representatives and Librarian of Congress, but he did not. On November 7, 1807, Jefferson appointed Patrick Magruder, a Washington newspaperman and former congressman who had been named Clerk of the House of Representatives ten days earlier, to serve concurrently as Librarian of Congress. Magruder was born in 1768 at Locust Grove, the family estate in Montgomery County, Maryland. On August 24, 1814, the British captured Washington and burned the U.S. Capitol, including the Library of Congress, which was in the Capitol's north wing. After a congressional investigation about the loss of the Library and the use of Library funds, on January 28, 1815, Magruder resigned his position of Clerk of the House of Representatives and by inference, the office of Librarian of Congress. Patrick Magruder died on December 24, 1819.

Thumbnail image of George Watterston (1815-1829)

George Watterston (1815-1829)

On March 21, 1815, Pres. James Madison appointed George Watterston as the new Librarian of Congress. A local novelist and journalist, Watterston was the first Librarian who was not also the Clerk of the House of Representatives. Watterston, Washington's leading man of letters, was the Librarian of Congress who received Jefferson's library in 1815 and adopted Jefferson's basic classification scheme as the Library's own. A partisan Whig, his librarianship came to an abrupt end on May 28, 1829, when newly elected Pres. Andrew Jackson replaced his with a Librarian who was a Democrat. Watterston was born on October 23, 1783, on a ship in New York harbor; he died in Washington on February 4, 1854.

Thumbnail image of John Silva Meehan (1829-1861)

John Silva Meehan (1829-1861)

On May 28, 1829, Pres. Andrew Jackson appointed a fellow Democrat, local printer and publisher John Silva Meehan, as Librarian of Congress. In early March 1861, Library Committee chairman James A. Pearce of Maryland informed newly elected Pres. Abraham Lincoln that for the past fifteen years the president "has always deferred to the wished of Congress" regarding the appointment of the Librarian, and that the Library Committee wished to retain Librarian Meehan. However, Lincoln replaced Meehan with a political supporter, John G. Stephenson, two months later. In length of service as Librarian, Meehan ranks only behind Herbert Putnam and Ainsworth Rand Spofford. John Silva Meehan was born in New York City on February 6, 1790, and died in Washington in his residence on Capitol Hill, not far from the Library of Congress, on April 24, 1863.

Thumbnail image of John G. Stephenson (1861-1864)

John G. Stephenson (1861-1864)

On May 24, 1861, President Lincoln rewarded a political supporter, John G. Stephenson, a physician from Terre Haute, Indiana, with the job of Librarian of Congress. In September 1861, Stephenson named an ardent bookman with Republican credentials, Ainsworth Rand Spofford, as Assistant Librarian. Stephenson resigned on December 22, 1864, to be effective December 31, 1864. John G. Stephenson was born in Lancaster, New Hampshire, on March 1, 1828, and died on November 12, 1882, in Washington, D.C. He is buried in an unmarked grave in Washington's Congressional Cemetery.

Thumbnail image of Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1864-1897)

Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1864-1897)

When it became apparent that Librarian Stephenson was going to resign, Assistant Librarian Spofford began to gather political endorsements for the job, and on December 31, 1864, President Lincoln appointed Ainsworth Rand Spofford to be the sixth Librarian of Congress. In 1896, on the eve of the move into the Library's first separate building, the leaders of the American Library Association made it clear that they hoped the 71-year old Spofford would step aside in favor of a younger and more progressive professional library administrator. On June 30, 1897, Pres. William McKinley nominated John Russell Young to be Librarian of Congress; the next day, Young named Spofford as Chief Assistant Librarian, an important job which Spofford held until his death. Ainsworth Rand Spofford was born in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, on September 12, 1825; he died on August 11, 1908, and is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, DC.

Thumbnail image of John Russell Young (1897-1899)

John Russell Young (1897-1899)

Pres. William McKinley appointed a friend and fellow Republican, journalist and former diplomat John Russell Young, as Librarian of Congress on June 30, 1897. The reorganization of the Library approved on February 19, 1897, strengthened the office of the Librarian and required Senate confirmation of the president's choice as Librarian; on June 30, Young became the first Librarian of Congress to be so confirmed. In making his appointments to a greatly expanded Library of Congress and in his devotion to the Library as a "true library of research," he established a new professionalism at the Library. After Young, who died in office on January 17, 1899, the personal qualifications of potential Librarians of Congress became more important than political considerations. John Russell Young was born in Ireland on November 20, 1840. He spent most of his life in Philadelphia.

Thumbnail image of Herbert Putnam (1899-1939)

Herbert Putnam (1899-1939)

John Russell Young's death after only a year and a half in office gave President McKinley a second opportunity to appoint a Librarian of Congress. At the urging of the American Library Association, on March 13, 1899, he named Herbert Putnam, librarian of the Boston Public Library and ALA president-elect. Putnam, who took the oath of office on April 5, was confirmed by the Senate without debate on December 12, 1899. He was the first experienced librarian to direct the Library of Congress, and made American libraries a new and important constituency for the Library of Congress. In 1938, Putnam informed Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt that he was ready to retire. The position of Librarian Emeritus was created on June 20, 1938, but the president asked him to stay on until a successor could be found. Putnam assumed the office of Librarian Emeritus on October 1, 1939, the day before his successor assumed his duties. Herbert Putnam was born on September 20, 1861, in the home of his parents in New York City. He died on August 14, 1955, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Thumbnail image of Archibald MacLeish (1939-1944)

Archibald MacLeish (1939-1944)

On May 11, 1939, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter endorsed Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt's suggestion that poet and writer Archibald MacLeish, "a scholarly man of letters," would make a good Librarian of Congress. Frankfurter felt MacLeish was an appropriate choice because the Library of Congress "is not merely a library." The president nominated MacLeish on June 7. The Senate held hearings on June 13 and 19; opponents of the nomination charged MacLeish with pro-Communist leanings. On June 18, the American Library Association adopted a resolution opposing the nomination because MacLeish was not a library administrator. The Senate confirmed the nomination on June 29 by a vote of 63 to 8, with 25 not voting. On July 10, at the post office in Conway, Massachusetts, MacLeish took the oath of office as the ninth Librarian of Congress. He assumed his duties on October 2, 1939. He resigned on December 19, 1944, to become assistant secretary of state. Archibald MacLeish was born on May 7, 1892, in Glencoe, Illinois. He died in Boston, Massachusetts on April 20, 1982.

Thumbnail image of Luther H. Evans (1945-1953

Luther H. Evans (1945-1953)

President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, without having nominated a successor to MacLeish. On June 18, 1945, Pres. Harry Truman nominated Chief Assistant Librarian of Congress Luther H. Evans to be Librarian of Congress. Evans was a political scientist but also an experienced library administrator who was acceptable to the American Library Association. The Senate held hearings on June 18, and the nominee was confirmed, without objection, on June 29. He took the oath of office on June 30, 1945. On July 1, 1953, Evans was elected the third director-general of UNESCO and submitted his resignation as Librarian of Congress, effective July 5, to Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Luther Evans was born on October 13, 1902, at his grandmother's farm near Sayersville, Bastrop County, Texas. He died on December 23, 1981, in San Antonio, Texas.

Thumbnail image of L. Quincy Mumford (1954-1974)

L. Quincy Mumford (1954-1974)

On April 22, 1954, President Eisenhower nominated L. Quincy Mumford, director of the Cleveland Public Library and president-elect of the American Library Association, to be Librarian of Congress. Mumford, the first Librarian of Congress to graduate from a library school (B.S. degree in library science, Columbia University, 1929), was a popular choice. The Senate held hearings on July 26 and confirmed the nomination, without objection, on July 29. Librarian Mumford took the oath of office on September 1, 1954. It was administered by Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Harold H. Burton on the Library's 1782 Aiken Bible, the first complete Bible printed in English in the independent United States. Mumford retired on December 31, 1974. Lawrence Quincy Mumford was born on December 11, 1903, on a farm near Ayden in Pitt County, North Carolina. He died in Washington DC, on August 15, 1982.

Thumbnail image of Daniel J Boorstin (1975-1987)

Daniel J Boorstin (1975-1987)

Pres. Gerald R. Ford, on June 30, 1975, nominated author and historian Daniel J. Boorstin, senior historian and former director of the National Museum of History and Technology, Smithsonian Institution, to be Librarian of Congress. The nomination was supported by the Authors League of America but opposed by the American Library Association because the nominee "was not a library administrator." Hearings on the nomination were held on July 30 and 31 and September 10, 1975, and on September 26, 1975, the Senate confirmed the nomination without debate. Daniel J. Boorstin took the oath of office in the Library's Great Hall on November 12, 1975. Participants in the ceremony included the congressional leadership and Pres. Gerald R. Ford. The oath of office was administered by Speaker of the House of Representatives Carl Albert, on the Thompson Bible from the Library's Jefferson collection. Boorstin retired in 1987 in order to devote more time to writing and lecturing. He became Librarian of Congress Emeritus on August 4, 1987. Daniel J. Boorstin was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on October 1, 1914 and died on Feb. 28, 2004 in Washington, D.C.

Thumbnail image of James H. Billington (1987-   )

James H. Billington (1987- )

On April 17, 1987, Pres. Ronald Reagan nominated historian James H. Billington, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for the Scholars at the Smithsonian Institution to be the thirteenth Librarian of Congress. Hearings were held by the U.S. Senate on July 14, 1987; the American Library Association neither endorsed nor opposed the nomination. Billington was confirmed on July 24. He took the oath of office in the Library's Great Hall on September 14, 1987. Participants in the ceremony included the congressional leadership, Pres. Ronald Reagan, and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who administered the oath on the Library's 1782 Aiken Bible. James H. Billington was born on June 1, 1929, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Contents - Preface - Library of Congress - Collections
Buildings - Librarians - Further Reading - Concordance

Go to:

Library of Congress

Contact Us ( March 30, 2006 )