On This Day: The U.S. Government Purchases Thomas Jefferson’s Library

January 30, 2023
A stack of old books sitting on a table

January 30, 1815

During an 1814 attack on the U.S. Capitol, British troops burned the entire collection of books for the nation’s new Library of Congress.

Today in history marks the beginning of the incredible rebuild for what is now the world’s largest library.

What Happened?

  • The War of 1812: Great Britain vs. U.S. – it lasted nearly 3 years (longer than U.S. involvement in WWI).

  • Caused by disputes over trade, clashes between the Royal Navy & U.S. sea merchants, AND the whole pesky U.S. fight for independence years earlier.

  • 1814 Burning of the Capitol & White House: In retaliation for the U.S. burning the capital of Upper Canada, British forces burned government structures in D.C.

Why It Matters

  • 1800: Pres. John Adams approved the Library of Congress.

  • Purpose: To serve Congress through providing necessary books to lawmakers (and the general public) by combining government, learning, and librarianship.”

  • 1815: After the fire, the House voted to buy Thomas Jefferson’s personal library of 6,487 books for $23,950 – the largest private collection of books in the U.S. at the time.

“An interesting treasure is added to your city … unquestionably the choicest collection of books in the US and I hope it will not be without some general effect on the literature of the country.”

President Thomas Jefferson after his collection of books was successfully moved into the Library of Congress in 1815.

The Library of Congress

  • Oldest U.S. federal cultural institution.

  • 170+ million items – making it the largest library in the world.

  • Daily: The library receives about 15,000 items (maps, books, music, posters, etc.) and adds 10,000+ items to its vast collections.

  • The library has offices in 6 other countries to acquire & preserve important research materials.

  • 470+ languages are represented.

The smallest book in the Library of Congress is about the size of a period at the end of this sentence; the largest book is 5' by 7'. The Library's rare books collection also holds treasures such as one of the earliest mass-produced books – a 15th-century Gutenberg Bible.

A little history from the Library of Congress on the Library of Congress

More: History of the Library

Fascinating Facts (The Library of Congress)

by Jenna Lee,