The Library of Congress is the oldest federally-funded institution in the United States. Friday, April 24, 2020, will be the two hundred and twentieth anniversary when President John Adams signed an act of Congress establishing the library. Thomas Jefferson was instrumental in the establishment of the library's collection, including selling his own personal collection after the library and its holdings were destroyed by the British during the War of 1812.
In 1939, Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed Archibald MacLeish to the position of Librarian of Congress. MacLeish reaffirmed the Library's role in providing education and spreading democratic ideals, both via the documents of America's founding fathers, but also in every instance of American literary, creative, and academic excellence. While the Library of Congress is known for its majestic interior and priceless primary sources (including some oddball additions like Thomas Jefferson's handwritten recipe for ice cream and a lock of Walt Whitman's hair), its digital resources are worth exploring. They offer a unique glimpse into America's past, which may provide us with insight into our future.
Below are some examples of what you may not have expected to find in such an august institution. Despite its historical legacy, the Library of Congress can find a space for almost anything:
Archive of Web Comics - What to acerbic dinosaurs, well-cited stick figure drawings, and trans teens have in common? They are all the subjects of influential webcomics. Although there have been digital comics for as long as there have been computers, it wasn't until the mid-90s that the genre burgeoned. What began as a solitary way for people to share their work online has turned into big business, with some creators able to transition into lucrative careers.
Leonard Bernstein Collection - Even if you've never heard the name Leonard Bernstein, you've certainly heard his work. He was the director of the New York Philharmonic, but his scores for West Side Story, On the Waterfront, Candide, and countless others have made him an indelible part of American music in the 20th Century. This collection features original sheet music, correspondences, and other ephemera from one of the most creative voices in popular music.
Alan Lomax Collection - Lomax was an employee of the Library of Congress and headed its Archive of Folk Culture until the department lost some of its funding in 1942. Lomax's father also worked for the Library of Congress, and the two of them used to travel around the country recording local musicians playing folk music. He later struck out on his own, recording Lead Belly and traveling the south with Zora Neale Hurston. His work eventually took him all over the world, traveling from Georgia (the state) to Georgia (the republic) and everywhere in between. Although the Library of Congress does not feature his recordings (those can all be found here), the collection features manuscripts and notes from his travels. It offers a glimpse into the mind of the most important ethnomusicologist of all time.
St. Louis Collection - The Library of Congress has over one thousand items online related to the history of St. Louis. From maps of the 1904 World Fair to portraits of athletes of yesteryear, it's a fascinating look into the history of our city.
Of course, the Library of Congress' online presence isn't limited to historical archives. They are also using this shutdown to provide a myriad of online resources, from poetry readings, musical performances, reference services, as well as factual updates about COVID-19.
It's easy to think of the Library of Congress as some stuffy museum filled with books behind glass and echoing marble halls. While that's true, it's only a part of what they offer to the American public. For over two centuries it's been America's preeminent record of all aspects of our country's life. I'd recommend treating it like you would any other library. Just go to their website and start clicking around. You'll find things in which you're interested, but you'll also find weird esoterica that you never knew existed. The Library of Congress may not be down the street, but it's your library, too.