Librarians of Congress

After last week’s post analyzing the reel librarians featured in All the President’s Men (1976), including two library clerks who worked at the Library of Congress, I was inspired to dig into the history of our own Librarians of Congress.

What is the Library of Congress, and when was it established?

Before we even get into the Librarians of Congress, first we need to know what the Library of Congress actually is. The Library of Congress — referred to by librarians as either “LOC” or “LC” for short — is a research library that was established primarily to serve the United States Congress. It is considered the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States, as well as the largest library in the world. It is also considered the de facto national library of the United States, but that took quite a long time to develop!

Library of Congress Reading Room

Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress in the Thomas Jefferson Building (image in the public domain)

1783:

  • James Madison is credited with the initial idea of a congressional library

1800:

  • President John Adams signed an act of Congress providing for the transfer of the seat of government from Philadelphia to the new capital city of Washington
  • Part of that legislation appropriated funds for a collection of books for the expressed use of Congress
  • The first “Library of Congress” collection consisted of 740 books and 3 maps, all bought from London

1814:

  • The Library of Congress had a collection of 3,000 volumes
  • The War of 1812 led to the burning of the capitol building, and the library’s original collection was destroyed by fire.

1815:

  • Thomas Jefferson sold his personal library of over 6,500 volumes to Congress, to help rebuild the Library of Congress.

1897:

  • New headquarters were established in the building we now refer to as the “Thomas Jefferson Building” and its iconic circular “Reading Room”
  • With over 840,000 volumes, the Library of Congress became known as the largest library in the United States
  • Much of this expansion of its holdings and influence is thanks to then-Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford, whose ultimate goal was to turn the Library of Congress into a de facto national library. His progressive policies, from 1865-1897, included:
    • collecting Americana and American literature
    • regulating copyright registration and putting that back under the purview of the Library of Congress
    • acquiring the Smithsonian libraries
    • restoring the Library’s international book exchange

Was the “Librarian of Congress” position established at the same time as the Library of Congress itself?

No, it wasn’t until 1802 — two years after the Library of Congress was officially established under President John Adams — that President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill that provided the basic structure for the position. This bill allowed the president to appoint an “overseer” of the Library of Congress and established a Joint Committee in Congress to help regulate the Library (basically, the means to keep funding it!).

This structure is still largely in place today, with the President appointing a nominee for Librarian of Congress. It was not until 1897, however, that this presidential nomination required Senate approval (“advice and consent”). This requirement elevated the profile and importance of the position.

There were also no term limits originally for the “overseer” — AKA the “Librarian of Congress” — essentially making the position a lifetime appointment. It wasn’t until 2015 that President Barack Obama signed into law the “Librarian of Congress Succession Modernization Act of 2015,” which put a 10-year term limit on the position with an option for reappointment.

How many Librarians of Congress have actually been librarians?

By the term “librarian,” I am referring to the modern definition of a librarian as an information professional with a degree in Library Science or related field (e.g. Information Science).

The answer of how many Librarians of Congress have actually been librarians is more complicated than I expected. Including the current one and dating back to 1802, there have only been 14 official Librarians of Congress in total. There was also an Acting Librarian of Congress, who served inbetween the 13th and 14th appointees, from 2015-2016.

Librarians of Congress… Out of 14 official Librarians of Congress, 1802-2017 Including the Acting Librarian of Congress, 2015-2016
… with advanced education and/or degrees 14 15
… with library science degrees 2 3
… with library experience prior to working at the Library of Congress  3 4
… who were white males 13 13
… who were/are female (reflecting 75-80% of the librarian workforce in the U.S.) 1 1
… who are librarians of color 1 2

One caveat: Library science as a science and educational degree in the United States was not established until 1887, the year that Melvil Dewey founded the world’s first library school at Columbia College, now Columbia University, in New York (after first proposing the idea in 1883). It is for this reason that Dewey is often referred to in the U.S. as the “Father of Modern Librarianship.” 1889 marked the year of the first graduating class from Columbia.

So if we take the year 1889 as the starting point for the possibility of having “actual librarians” and compare that with the historical list of Librarians of Congress, that would reduce the list of possibles to 8 (or 9, if you count the Acting Librarian of Congress from 2015-2016). And then counting from that list those who have been actual librarians, it brings the percentage up to 25% (2 of 8), or 33% (3 of 9) if you count the Acting Librarian. That’s still a very low percentage of Librarians of Congress being professionally trained and educated librarians.

Who is the current Librarian of Congress?

Carla Hayden is our current and 14th Librarian of Congress, becoming the first woman and the first African American to lead our national library. She received her master’s and doctorate degrees in Library Science from the University of Chicago Graduate Library School. I believe that also makes her the first Librarian of Congress to have earned a doctorate in library science!

Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress (2016- )

Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress (2016- )

Her librarian experience is deep and varied:

  • 1973-1982:  Children’s librarian and then young adult services coordinator at Chicago Public Library
  • 1982-1987:  Library services coordinator for Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry
  • 1987-1991:  Assistant Professor of Library Science at the University of Pittsburgh
  • 1991 to 1993:  Deputy commissioner and chief librarian of the Chicago Public Library
  • 1993-2016:  Director at Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland
    • 2003-2004:  President of the American Library Association (ALA)

I earned my own library science degree in 2003, just a few weeks before Carla Hayden became ALA President. Her theme during her ALA Presidency was “Equity of Access,” and she has continued to be an outspoken voice for librarian advocacy. When she was named Ms. Magazine‘s 2003 Woman of the Year, she stated in her interview:

Libraries are a cornerstone of democracy—where information is free and equally available to everyone. People tend to take that for granted, and they don’t realize what is at stake when that is put at risk.

In a subsequent article in Ms. Magazine in 2016, Hayden stated:

(Librarians) are activists, engaged in the social work aspect of librarianship. Now we are fighters for freedom.

Carla Hayden is also active on Twitter, via the Library of Congress Twitter account!

Who were the previous Librarians of Congress?

All of the previous Librarians of Congress have in common a couple of visual traits:  white and male. They were all also highly educated. Here’s a look at the Previous Librarians of Congress page from the Library of Congress website:

Previous Librarians of Congress, 1802-2015

I have compiled a list below of the previous Librarians of Congress, which includes the time period in which they served in that role, their previous professions, and items of note during their tenure.

 1. John J. Beckley (1802–1807)

  • Former American political campaign manager
  • Served concurrently as Librarian of Congress and as Clerk of the House of Representatives until his death in 1807
  • Oversaw the creation of the first “Library of Congress” collection, consisting of 740 books and 3 maps

2. Patrick Magruder (1807–1815)

  • Lawyer
  • Also served concurrently as Librarian of Congress and as Clerk of the House of Representatives
  • After the War of 1812 and the destruction of the Library’s collection, he resigned after an investigation by Congress into the destruction of the Library and the use of Library funds

3. George Watterston (1815–1829)

  • Former lawyer and newspaper editor
  • The first full-time Librarian of Congress (the position was separated from the Clerk of the House of Representatives in 1815) — and therefore sometimes referred to as the first true “Librarian of Congress”
  • Oversaw the restoration of the Library’s collection and the purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library of books
  • Published the Library’s first public catalog of its holdings — and was criticized by Congress for doing so, due to its expense!
  • Strong advocate for expansion of the Library and lobbied successfully for additional staff, naming an Assistant Librarian in 1828
  • Opposed the election of President Andrew Jackson and was subsequently replaced

4. John Silva Meehan (1829–1861)

  • Printer and publisher
  • During his tenure, several of the Library’s functions were transferred to other government agencies, thus weakening the role and purpose of the Library of Congress (public document distribution activities to the Department of the Interior; international book exchange program to the Department of State; depository of copyrighted books to the Patent Office)
  • During his entire tenure, the chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library — not the Librarian of Congress! — selected the books for the Library’s collection
  • Served under 9 U.S. Presidents

5. John Gould Stephenson (1861–1864)

  • Physician and soldier
  • During his tenure, also served as physician for the Union Army during the Civil War

6. Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1864–1897)

  • Journalist and publisher
  • Served as Assistant Librarian to Stephenson
  • Progressive leadership that transformed the Library of Congress into a national institution that also served the American public
  • Oversaw the building of a new home for the collection, creating a physical structure for the Library of Congress, separate from the Capitol building
  • Retired to become Chief Assistant Librarian under the next two Librarians of Congress, a position he held until his death in 1908

7. John Russell Young (1897–1899)

  • Journalist, author, and diplomat
  • Oversaw the physical move of the collection from the Capitol building to the new Library of Congress building
  • Served only two years, until his death in 1899

8. Herbert Putnam (1899–1939)

  • Former lawyer
  • Although he did not have a degree in library science (it was still a new degree), he was the first Librarian of Congress to have prior library experience, having served as Librarian of the Minneapolis Athenaeum (1884-87), the Minneapolis Public Library (1887-91), and the Boston Public Library (1895-99)
  • Longest-serving Librarian of Congress
  • Developed the Library of Congress Classification system, still in use today by the Library of Congress and academic libraries worldwide
  • Urged the creation of a second Library of Congress building; the John Adams Building opened in 1939
  • Upon his retirement, Putnam was made Librarian of Congress Emeritus

9. Archibald MacLeish (1939–1944)

  • Former lawyer but best known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and writer
  • Controversial appointment, which included a letter writing campaign by the American Library Association (ALA) against MacLeish’s nomination. Part of the reason the ALA opposed the appointment? The fact that he had not attended a professional school of library science and had no library experience!
  • Developed policies, procedures, and the first explicit statements of the institution’s goals and collection development criteria
  • Created a new program of resident fellowships for young scholars and the Fellows of the Library of Congress, a group of prominent writers and poets

10. Luther H. Evans (1945–1953)

  • Political scientist
  • Served under MacLeish as head of the Legislative Reference Service and later Chief Assistant Librarian of Congress
  • One of the few government officials to openly resist McCarthyism
  • Resigned from the Library to accept a position as UNESCO’s third Director General, the only American to hold this post

11. Lawrence Quincy Mumford (1954–1974)

  • Bachelor of Library Science degree at the School of Library Science, Columbia University
  • Served as librarian at New York Public Library (NYPL) and director of the Cleveland Public Library system
  • Married a librarian (!), Permelia Catherine Stevens, a children’s librarian for the NYPL system
  • Considered to be the first professionally trained and educated librarian to be appointed Librarian of Congress!
  • Oversaw the establishment of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for substantial and lasting contributions to literature for children
  • Implemented the construction of the James Madison Memorial Building (finished in 1980), which became the third Library of Congress building
  • Ushered the Library of Congress into the computer age, including establishing the Machine-Readable Cataloging (MARC) system, which is still in use today by library catalogers worldwide
  • Note:  It was during Mumford’s tenure that Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein sought help from Library of Congress clerks while beginning their investigation into the Watergate scandal.

12. Daniel J. Boorstin (1975–1987)

  • Rhodes Scholar, lawyer, and historian
  • Former director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of History and Technology (today known as the National Museum of American History)
  • His nomination was also controversial, with the ALA opposing his nomination because “however distinguished [his background] may be, [it] does not include demonstrated leadership and administrative qualities which constitute basic and essential characteristics necessary in the Librarian of Congress.”
  • The first Librarian of Congress to take the oath of office at a formal ceremony in the Library itself
  • Instrumental in the creation of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress
  • Upon his retirement, was made Librarian of Congress Emeritus

13. James H. Billington (1987–2015)

  • Rhodes Scholar and academic who taught history at Princeton and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
  • Oversaw the creation of a massive new Library of Congress online, including the American Memory site in 1990, which became The National Digital Library site in 1994
  • Reconstructed Thomas Jefferson’s original library (a majority of the volumes had been destroyed by a fire in 1851) — I was lucky to see this exhibit personally and up close in 2010!
  • Created the National Book Festival, founded in 2000 with Laura Bush, herself a former school and public librarian

David S. Mao (2015-2016, Acting)

  • Earned a master’s degree in library and information science from The Catholic University of America
  • Law librarian experience, including at a private law firm and the Georgetown University Law Library
  • Joined the Library of Congress in 2005, hired by the American Law Division in the Congressional Research Service (CRS). In 2010, he joined the Law Library of Congress as its first Deputy Law Librarian, and then became the 23rd Law Librarian of Congress in 2012. In 2015, then-Librarian of Congress James Billington appointed him to the Deputy Librarian of Congress office.
  • Under his brief tenure as Acting Librarian of Congress, he brought to the Library a copy of the 1215 Magna Carta for a historic 800th anniversary exhibition

After researching the backgrounds and tenures of the previous and current Librarians of Congress, I have come away with a profound respect — and pride, both as a librarian and as an American! — for their collective contributions. The Library of Congress today is a respected institution worldwide, and it took a lot of work and leadership to get there!

Sources:

About the Librarian.” Library of Congress, n.d.

History of the Library.” Library of Congress, n.d.

Previous Librarians of Congress.” Library of Congress, n.d.

Librarian of Congress” article from Wikipedia is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Library of Congress” article from Wikipedia is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

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