The First Library Of Congress Building Opens Its Doors To The Public

On November 1, 1897, the first Library of Congress building opened its doors to the public.

Previously, the Library had been housed in the Congressional Reading Room in the U.S. Capitol.

In 1871, Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Spofford suggested the construction of a separate building for the Library which had outgrown its cramped quarters. Congress approved the plan in 1886, and architects John L. Smithmeyer and Paul J. Pelz set out to design a facility worthy of Spofford's concept of the Library of Congress as "America's National Library."

According to Library historian John Cole, Spofford "envisioned a circular, domed reading room at the Library's center, surrounded by ample space for the Library's various departments." When completed, it was the largest and costliest library building in the world.

The Library of Congress, spurred by the 1897 reorganization, began to grow and develop more rapidly. Spofford's successor John Russell Young, though only in office for two years, overhauled the Library's bureaucracy, used his connections as a former diplomat to acquire more materials from around the world, and established the Library's first assistance programs for the blind and physically disabled. Young's successor Herbert Putnam held the office for forty years from 1899 to 1939, entering into the position two years before the Library became the first in the United States to hold one million volumes. Putnam focused his efforts on making the Library more accessible and useful for the public and for other libraries. He instituted the interlibrary loan service, transforming the Library of Congress into what he referred to as a "library of last resort". Putnam also expanded Library access to "scientific investigators and duly qualified individuals" and began publishing primary sources for the benefit of scholars.

America is justly proud of this gorgeous and palatial monument to its National sympathy and appreciation of Literature, Science, and Art.”

— Guidebook, ca. 1897. From Jefferson's Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress