Saturday, February 14, 2009

Day 70/365 The Mothership....The Library of Congress

I come by my book-addiction honestly. It's literally in my genes. My great-great-great-great-grandfather Patrick Magruder was the second Librarian of Congress (of currently 13), appointed by President Thomas Jefferson.

The original Library of Congress was authorized in 1800 by President John Adams. He provided an allowance of $5,900 for the first books (almost the same as my monthly tab at Amazon), with a focus on law, history and economics.

At the time the Clerk of the House of Representatives was also the Librarian of Congress, and as such the salary for the Librarian could not exceed two dollars a day. The first Librarian was appointed by Jefferson, a Mr. John Beckley. (Sidenote: When Beckley died in 1807, his son inherited a large tract of wilderness in what is today West Virginia, establishing a little village named for his father: Beckley, West Virginia).

Mr. Beckley's passing left a vacancy, so President Jefferson appointed Patrick Magruder to the post. Patrick was a Washington newspaperman, and a former Congressman, plus he'd been named to the House of Representatives about 10 days prior -meaning he was the prime candidate to stick with the Librarian's job.

Seven uneventful years later in 1814, (smack dab in the middle of the War of 1812 with the British), Patrick's wife fell ill, and he took a long weekend to carry her to relatives in the Virginia countryside.

Unfortunately, this would be the same weekend the British decided to try to capture Washington. Patrick's brother, George Magruder, was head of the American troops left guarding Washington, and just to be on the safe side, he contacted the Assistant Librarian of Congress, who remains nameless, and ordered him to procur wagons and horses, load up the books and transport them to Fredricksburg for safekeeeping.

Said Nameless Assistant, upon being thrust into the limelight, had trouble rounding up any sort of road-worthy wagons and horses, but eventually came up with nine, barely got those few wagons loaded and dispatched before the British arrived.

While the wagons were enroute to Fredericksburg, the British captured Washington, burning both the Capitol and the Library of Congress. Then to add injury to insult, they advanced to Fredericksburg, and managed to destroy the nine wagonloads of books as well in the ensuing battle.

When the dust settled, and America won (again), there was, of course, A Congressional Investigation into the loss of the library and the library funds. Thomas Jefferson was no longer president and had retired to Monticello, and so could not protect his friend Patrick - at the end of the investigation, it was deemed Patrick Magruder's fault that the Library of Congress was destroyed, and he resigned from both the House of Representatives and the Librarian position on January 28, 1815.

(Remember this when you're tempted to take a sick day. Always make sure your own Nameless Assistant knows where to find the wagons, and if the Brits are coming to visit, never allow them to bring matches.)

Patrick went home to Virginia, and Thomas Jefferson (being in dire financial straits due in no small part to his own book-addiction) offered to sell Congress his own private library: all 6,500 books. With Jefferson's collection to start it off, the new Library of Congress covered not only law, history and economics but also added architecture, botany, science, literature and geography.

The Jefferson books were housed in a special reading room in Congress until 1886, when construction on the current building started.

At the time it was built, it was the largest and most costly library in the world.

This is the main reading room. Visiting this room always makes me hyperventilate-this is the Holy Grail for library lovers.

Look up and you see the rotunda ceiling. It's a completely incorrect architectual or historic fantasy, but I always imagine the Great Library at Alexandria looking something like the Library of Congress's Reading Room.

See! Grand sweeping steps, huge imposing columns, 650 miles of stacks, 32 million books,106 million maps, manuscripts, photographs, films, audio and video recordings, prints and drawings, mosaics and artwork by 50 American artists, bronze and plaster sculptures....why, it's a library!

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