What is the Library of Congress?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Library of Congress serves as the national library of the United States of America. Located in three buildings in Washington, DC, it is also the largest library in the world, with 530 miles (853 kilometers) of shelving. It has very large collections of a variety of materials from all over the world, with more than 22,000 new items arriving for catalog and disposal daily. The Library of Congress has also developed an independent classification system for books, which is used by some libraries instead of the Dewey Decimal System.

The Library of Congress holds more than 30 million books.
The Library of Congress holds more than 30 million books.

In 1800, President John Adams signed an act of Congress officially locating the national capitol in Washington, DC. The act also included a provision for the establishment of a library, originally intended for the use of Congress. The Library of Congress, as it came to be known, started relatively small, but quickly expanded, acquiring materials from all over the world. It still serves as the primary research library for members of Congress, and individuals over 18 with an ID issued by the United States government, such as a driver's license, are also able to visit the library and take advantage of its research collections.

The Library of Congress houses newspapers from all over the world.
The Library of Congress houses newspapers from all over the world.

The contents of the Library of Congress are held in three buildings: the Thomas Jefferson Building, the John Adams Building, and the James Madison Memorial Building, which currently serves as the headquarters for the library. The permanent collection includes over 30 million books in 470 languages, 58 million manuscripts, and over one million official government publications. It also houses a formidable rare book collection, newspapers from all over the world, films, photographs, graphic novels, sheet music, and sound recordings.

By convention, every individual interested in seeking copyright sends two copies of a new release to the Library of Congress. The library creates a catalog entry for the book, which is included in future editions. If the book is deemed historically significant, both copies will be retained as part of the permanent collection. If not, the books are sold or traded with other libraries. The Library of Congress also acts as a central database for copyrighted documents, and as the base for the United States Copyright Office.

Materials from the collections of the Library of Congress can only be checked out by US government officials. On rare occasions, if a citizen cannot acquire materials anywhere else, an arrangement for a loan can be made, as it is considered the lending library of last resort.

The Library of Congress includes numerous graphic novels.
The Library of Congress includes numerous graphic novels.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I just found out that the first Library of Congress was actually burned down by the British in the early 1800s. All of the books were lost in the fire.

We were left without a Library when Thomas Jefferson decided to donate his huge collection to start a new Library of Congress. They say that the reason the Library of Congress today has books on so many different subjects and areas is thanks to Thomas Jefferson. The first library just had books relating to America and government. But Thomas Jefferson's collection had all kinds of books, even on science and philosophy. The Library now is still following his collection and example and now has more than one hundred million resources.

I admire President Thomas Jefferson even more now that I know how he has contributed to the Library of Congress.


I love going to Library of Congress' resources for country profiles and Congress reports. There is just so much information out there, sometimes I don't know if the source is dependable or not. But when you get information from the Library of Congress, you know that this is where people in Washington and policy makers get their information.

I know that my information is good and I am writing a good paper with good sources. If you need information on a country, I recommend you check out their sources first. You'll probably find everything you need from there.


I went to the Library of Congress once. I was interning with a DC organization and needed to look up some Congress resolutions. Unfortunately, not all of past resolutions have been posted online. So you do have to request it from the Library of Congress or go there physically if you want to read them.

The staff was really helpful though. I had to get a Library of Congress identification since it was my first time there. Afterward, I just went to the floor and section for Resolutions and one of the Library staff basically found the Resolution I was looking for. I made a copy of it to take with me and read.

If you live in the vicinity, it's a pretty easy route to do research. I guess if you don't live in D.C. it might be a problem. But I'm sure you could contact the Library even if you are far away to get information on a source and how you could get a hold of it.

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