The Art of Acquisition cover

The Art of Acquisition

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The Library of Congress works daily to build a universal collection.
Blame Thomas Jefferson.
He’s the founding father (and ravenous reader) who convinced the U.S. Congress it needed not just his books on law and history to replace its more than 3,000-volume library–torched with the U.S. Capitol by the Redcoats in 1814–but all 6,487 of his volumes, in many languages and on many topics.
(This is a feature story in the July/August 2015 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. The story was written by Jennifer Gavin, a senior public affairs specialist in the Office of Communications. Joseph Puccio, the Library’s collection development officer, contributed to this story. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)

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The Art of Acquisition

Resource For The World

The Library of Congress works daily to build a universal collection.

Blame Thomas Jefferson.

He’s the founding father (and ravenous reader) who convinced the U.S. Congress it needed not just his books on law and history to replace its more than 3,000-volume library–torched with the U.S. Capitol by the Redcoats in 1814–but all 6,487 of his volumes, in many languages and on many topics.

“There is, in fact, no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer,” Jefferson argued–and the retired president won the day. His universalist, multi-lingual approach to book-collecting became the Library of Congress approach, and is a major reason the Library–with items in more than 470 languages–is a resource for the entire world.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

From the acquisition of Jefferson’s personal library 200 years ago–which the Library celebrates this year–the Library has grown to 160.7 million items. This includes more than 38 million books and other print material, and nearly 123 million other items in other formats, including audio, manuscripts, maps, movies, sheet music and photographs.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division


How Do Collections Come to the Library?

The Library gets its materials, which flow in at a rate averaging more than 15,000 items per working day, from four primary pipelines:

• Through gifts;

• Through the U.S. Copyright Office, which is part of the Library of Congress;

• Through purchases;

• Through exchanges with other libraries and other non- purchase arrangements.

The Library’s curators approach holders of prospective collections to let them, or their heirs, know of the Library’s interest in acquiring such collections.


Some of the Library’s most awe-inspiring treasures come in as part of larger, donated collections.

For example, books of poems by William Blake and many other rare books came through donation by rare book collector Lessing Rosenwald.

The Library’s collection of the works, working papers and even the piano and typewriter used by George and Ira Gershwin were donated by their family. The heirs of Abraham Lincoln and of some of his cabinet members made gifts to the Library of papers and artifacts, including handwritten copies of his most famous speeches.

I Have A Dream…

I Have A Dream…

Since 1870–when Congress put the Copyright Office inside the Library–a deposit copy of each work copyrighted is made available to the Library for its collections. This gives the Library what Librarian of Congress James H. Billington likes to call the “mint record of American creativity.”

Many of the most interesting items in the Library’s collections–from baseball cards to poetry, to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech–came into the Library through copyright.

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream,” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C.

Public Domain


Purchases fill in another part of the picture. The majority of the Library’s budget is appropriated funding from Congress and a segment of that funding goes toward purchases of research materials.

The Library also gets a boost from external supporters–such as the membership of the James Madison Council, the Library’s private-sector advisory group. Its members have been very generous in donating funding for Library acqusitions.

A mix of public and private money helped the Library buy, for $10 million, one of its top treasures, the Waldseemüller Map of 1507–the first document to include the name “America.” Private funding has helped the Library buy rare books, maps and many other collections.


Some items come to the Library through auctions. The Library has a process through which curators work closely with recommending officers to determine whether to bid on items.

Jennifer Baum-Sevec, who is involved in auctions as part of her work in the Library’s U.S./Anglo Division, said the Library typically works through agents, in part so it is not obvious it is a government agency doing the bidding (which might adversely affect the price). The Library, which under federal financial regulations cannot produce payment on the spot for such purchased items, also benefits by working with agents who are willing to wait for their own payment until the steps mandated by law have been undertaken.

Sometimes the Library decides to pass on an auction if it just gets too costly. “Determine your walk-away point–you have to go into it with that mindset,” Baum-Sevec said.

Card Division

Card Division

The Library also maintains collecting offices in parts of the world where getting materials is a bit more challenging. These are in Nairobi, Kenya; Cairo, Egypt; Islamabad, Pakistan; New Delhi, India; Jakarta, Indonesia; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

People working in Card Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., 1910s or 1920s

Library of Congress Prints & Photographs

From Intake To Shelf

Policy on what to collect has been established and is reviewed, as needed, by the Library’s Collections Development Office and its Collections Policy Committee, composed of key staff members throughout the Library.

The Library’s 200 recommending officers proactively identify items for acquisition and also select from other materials that have been received.

Designated staff in the Copyright Office, Acquisitions and Bibliographic Access Directorate and the Law Library of Congress also analyze the incoming materials and make selections. On average, about 12,000 items are selected daily from the 15,000 received.

Selected material must be cataloged, shelved–on about 838 miles of shelving in three buildings on Capitol Hill and several offsite storage facilities–and made available to researchers.

What About The Leftovers?

The Library of Congress does not collect everything it is offered, some of which is unsolicited.

Duplicates of books already in the collections and other books not meeting the Library’s collection criteria are placed in the Library’s Surplus Books unit for a time. These recent-issue books are available for donation to libraries or other nonprofit groups willing to cover the cost of moving them to new homes.

The World’s Largest Library

The World’s Largest Library

What this means is that the Library of Congress, with 21 reading rooms open to anyone 16 or older with a Library reader card, and online to anyone with internet access, is a veritable intellectual feast.

Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress in the Thomas Jefferson Building

Image by Carol M. Highsmith

Knowledge Is Power

Thomas Jefferson probably didn’t anticipate that when he began amassing his personal library.

But it’s not hard to imagine that he would be as proud of that as he was of penning the Declaration of Independence or helping found the University of Virginia.

He knew that knowledge is power.

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