Dec. 24, 1851: Fire rips through Library of Congress

The main reading room at the Library of Congress (Photo: Library of Congress's prints and photographs division …

On Christmas Eve in 1851, the largest fire in the history of the Library of Congress wiped out nearly two-thirds of the collection. It destroyed 35,000 out of the library’s 55,000 books at the time, including most of Thomas Jefferson’s archive.

Jefferson had sold his 6,487 books and newspapers to the library for $23,950 in 1815. He had been a proponent of creating the library, and his collection was to replace what the British had burned during the War of 1812. But the plan for a national library was seriously hampered after the 1851 fire. In addition to books, the fire also destroyed a number of paintings and busts the library had collected and stored.

While Congress allocated $168,700 to replace the burned books, it did not add money for new materials. The library also struggled during the 1850s because the Smithsonian Institute was attempting to become the country’s library of record. That battle ended by 1854, when the Smithsonian transferred its 40,000-volume collection to the Library of Congress.

Today, the library houses 34.5 million books and printed materials on 838 miles of shelves in an Italian Renaissance-style building opened in 1897 near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. It is one of the two biggest libraries in the world and serves as the research arm for Congress. Anyone over age 16 is welcome to use the library for research, and 1.7 million people annually visit to tour the great hall and main reading room and see exhibits like Washington’s copy of the Constitution, a draft of the Declaration of Independence and the Gutenberg Bible.


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