The Library of Congress is the research library that officially serves the United States Congress, but which is the de facto national library of the United States. It is the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States. John Cole argues that it is now the largest and most international library in the world. He attributes that to its highly influential leaders, especially Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1864–97), Herbert Putnam (1899–1939), Luther H. Evans (1945–53), and James H. Billington (1987–). Cole says they "have affirmed and expanded Thomas Jefferson's concept that the Library of Congress is a national institution that should be universal in scope and widely and freely available to everyone."
By 1990, the Library of Congress became the world's largest library, and retains that title today. The Library's "collections are universal, not limited by subject, format, or national boundary, and include research materials from all parts of the world and in more than 450 languages. Two thirds of the books it acquires each year are in languages other than English."
The Library of Congress moved to Washington in 1800, after sitting for eleven years in the temporary national capitals of New York and Philadelphia. John J. Beckley, who became the first Librarian of Congress, was paid two dollars per day and was also required to serve as the Clerk of the House of Representatives. The small Congressional Library was housed in the United States Capitol for most of the 19th century until the early 1890s. Most of the original collection had been destroyed by the British in 1814 during the War of 1812. To restore its collection in 1815, the library bought from former president Thomas Jefferson his entire personal collection of 6,487 books.
After a period of slow growth, another fire struck the Library in its Capitol chambers in 1851. again destroying a large amount of the collection, including many of Jefferson's books. The Library of Congress then began to grow rapidly in both size and importance after the American Civil War and a campaign to purchase replacement copies for volumes that had been burned from other sources, collections and libraries (which had begun to speckle throughout the burgeoning United States). The Library received the right of transference of all copyrighted works to have two copies deposited of books, maps, illustrations and diagrams printed in the United States. It also began to build its collections of British and other European works and then of works published throughout the English-speaking world.
This development culminated in the construction during 1888-1894 of a separate, expansive library building across the street from the Capitol, in the Beaux Arts style with fine decorations, murals, paintings, marble halls, columns and steps, carved hardwoods and a stained glass dome. It included several stories built underground of steel and cast iron stacks.
The Library's primary mission is researching inquiries made by members of Congress is carried out through the Congressional Research Service, traces its origin to 1914 and was first permanently authorized (as the Legislative Reference Service) with the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946.
Although the Library is open to the public, only high-ranking government officials may check out books and materials. The Library promotes literacy and American literature through projects such as the American Folklife Center, American Memory, Center for the Book and Poet Laureate.
This is a often under-used genealogical repository for genealogists in Washington D.C. Their card catalog is on line. Give their card catalog a try. They have family genealogies (books), as well as early large city directories.
Before going to the "Local History and Genealogy" section of the Library of Congress (LOC), please know that their web site states: