The Library of Congress – Rare Book & Special Collections
The Rare Book and Special Collections Division traces its beginnings to Thomas Jefferson’s wish to create a library for statesmen and for the people of the new nation. After the British burned the Capitol and its library in 1814, Jefferson offered to sell his book collection to Congress. Congress appropriated money for the purchase, and Jefferson’s collection served as the foundation for the new Library of Congress in 1815. Jefferson’s books–in several languages and covering a great variety of subjects–today form the nucleus of the division. Although at first the Library did not create a separate Rare Book Division, Ainsworth Rand Spofford, Librarian of Congress from 1864 to 1897, gathered in his office rare books, pamphlets, broadsides, and printed ephemera of interest to the scholars of his day. The institution also actively sought out collections that contained rare materials. Gifts from many generous donors also added greatly to the rare holdings. Today the division’s collections amount to nearly 800,000 books, broadsides, pamphlets, theater playbills, title pages, prints, posters, photographs, and medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. Although the division’s materials have come into its custody for a variety of reasons–their monetary value, importance in the history of printing, binding, association interest, or fragility, they have one point in common: the collections offer scholarly documentation about the western and American traditions of life and learning.