John Y. Cole and the Library of Congress

In The Library of Congress and the Democratic Spirit, John Y. Cole – the current Library of Congress Historian – explores the history of the Library of Congress (LOC) and what he believes to be the democratic roots of America’s largest national library. Cole’s chapter was written on the coattails of the LOC’s bicentennial in 2000. His attitude toward the Library is considerably exalted, and as then-co-chair of the Bicentennial Steering Committee, it seems that Cole sought to extend the “romantic” narrative of the Library’s history, started by the historian James Truslow Adams.

While Cole puts emphasis on the expansion of the Library and its efforts to include more cultural artifacts (or Americana), he seems to implicitly believe that this expansion and inclusion is based on the Library’s historical principles laid down from the personal desires of Thomas Jefferson. This is a big declaration of faith in Jefferson’s intentions. Cole seems to believe that there were no prejudices in the founding father’s formation of the LOC. Perhaps it is because of Jefferson’s presumably “selfless” gesture of donating his entire library at Monticello after the fire in 1814. But Jefferson was going broke, and he sold his library to the LOC. This is an example of what can go wrong when we assume things about historical “great men.” Indeed, Jefferson may be one of those men who thought better than he actually lived, for he was not the man who turned the LOC into an institution of national significance.

It was Ainsworth Rand Spofford, the sixth Librarian of Congress, who emphasized the addition of non-legislative library materials, and in particular a growing collection of Americana. Cole writes that Spofford “had the vision, skill, and perseverance to capitalize on the libraries claim to a national role” (Cole, 172). Indeed, the most important provision that Spofford introduced to the LOC was the copyright law of 1870, which “ensured the continuing development of the Library’s Americana collections, for it stipulated that two copies of every book, pamphlet, map, print, photograph, and piece of music registered for copyright be deposited in the Library” (Cole, 173). We can understand how much of a game-changer this decision was, because it greatly added to the wealth and democratic inclusion of American cultural history. This, however, was not a decision having anything to do with Thomas Jefferson. So the democratic threads going back farther than Spofford are, I think, questionable.

The succeeding Librarian of Congress, John Russell Young, further integrated multiculturalism into the LOC during the melting pot years. Young reached out to U.S. diplomatic and consular representatives and had them send cultural works belonging to the populations that were immigrating to the United States (Cole, 175). This was another democratizing move, again having nothing to do with Thomas Jefferson…

Cole ends his article with a summary of the last Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, and his major achievements. Billington oversaw the Library between 1987 and 2015. During this time, the LOC established a presence on the World Wide Web and much of the Americana collections were made available online during his tenure. This greatly leveled the democratic privileges to accessing the national Library. Cole says that this ushered in a new era of service and accessibility (Cole, 179).

So while I feel that Cole aptly highlighted the truly democratic changes that occurred during the centennial of the LOC, it remains dubious as to how these events were rooted in the “cradle of Jeffersonian democracy.”


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