It may look like just a ledger of receipts and expenditures, but to American book lovers it packs special meaning: The homely account book with the marbleized cover on display now at the Library of Congress is apparently the only volume that survived the 1814 fire set by the British, a conflagration that burned the Capitol and the infant library to a crisp.
Thanks to the torch-wielding Brits, however, Congress in 1815 bought Thomas Jefferson's personal library of 6,487 books for less than $24,000 and began a rebuilding campaign. Today the Library of Congress is the largest and, arguably, the finest library in the world. In 2000 the library will celebrate its bicentennial with a year's worth of festivities.
"We want to make our 200th birthday a national celebration of the important role that libraries play in our democratic society," said James H. Billington, the 13th librarian of Congress, in an official proclamation. "Our goal is to inspire creativity in the century ahead by stimulating greater use of the Library of Congress and libraries across the country."
The party has already started. A raft of free activities is planned. A concert series featuring musicians from all over the world will extend into May. There's a series of jazz films in January. On May 22, Stephen Sondheim will celebrate his 70th birthday at the library.
There will be some oh-so-serious symposiums, such as "Democracy and the Rule of Law in a Changing World Order" in March and "Guarding the Nation's Heritage: Preservation and Security" in October. In April--a k a National Poetry Month--Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky hands over to the library audio and videotapes, recorded over two years, of Americans reading and reciting their most beloved poems.
The Official, No-Kidding, Big Day will be April 24. Planned events include a block party with live music; the issuing of a commemorative stamp from the U.S. Postal Service, the unveiling of a gold and platinum collectible coin from the U.S. Mint; the publication of a new history of the library; the sale of a custom-made, limited-edition Lenox china bowl in the library's gift shop; the sealing of a time capsule to be opened in the year 2100; and other special activities. Two new exhibits will also open on that day: "Thomas Jefferson: Genius of Liberty" and "The Wizard of Oz: An American Fairy Tale."
"We want to use the bicentennial as an opportunity for people to recognize in this electronic era the important role that libraries play in helping to educate," said JoAnn Jenkins, the library's chief of staff and one of the organizers of the events.
Jenkins and a handful of others began planning for the wingding in 1997. Eventually, hundreds of staff members became involved.
Page by Page
For a taste of the celebration, you can visit the library's Web site at http://www.loc.gov and click on the ornate medallion--a worm's eye-view of the reading-room dome--in the center of the home page.
While browsing there, you can read the amazing history of the library. How John Adams, the second president, signed off on legislation on April 24, 1800, setting aside $5,000 to buy "such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress." How the first 740 volumes and three maps, ordered from England, arrived in 1801 and were deposited in the U.S. Capitol. How Thomas Jefferson, president from 1801 to 1809, was the true father of the library.
He took a keen interest in the project, suggesting books to purchase and appointing the first two librarians. And it was Jefferson who offered to sell Congress his library after the fire of 1814.
The young library expanded slowly. Another fire destroyed thousands of books in 1851. By the end of the Civil War, the library had seven staffers and some 80,000 books. The great expansion began in 1865, when Ainsworth Rand Spofford, a bookseller and journalist from Ohio, was named the sixth librarian. Over the next 32 years, Spofford used his political savvy to turn the library into a world-class institution.
During the Spofford years, the library became a bipartisan darling. Copyright laws ensured that copies of everything printed in this country would be deposited there. The library began aggressively collecting American publications and artifacts. The magnificent Jefferson Building--with its countless murals and sculptures and inscriptions honoring achievements of Western civilization--is perhaps the grandest monument to culture in the land. It was finished in 1897, Spofford's last year, to hold the institution's 840,000 books.
Also that year the library initiated daily readings for the blind. That program evolved into today's service for the physically handicapped, one of the library's many outreach programs.
Today the library has more than 115 million items stashed away on more than 530 miles of shelving in three gigantic buildings on Capitol Hill and several far-flung storehouses. It keeps about half of the 22,000 items that arrive each day. One of the volumes in the collection is "The Bay Psalm Book," believed to be the first book printed in North America. Excerpts from a Buddhist discourse, printed in 770 A.D. are stored in the Asian division and are the oldest examples of printing in the world. A cuneiform tablet, dated 2040 B.C., is the oldest written material in the library. The library also has massive collections of maps, movies, prints, photographs, TV shows, sheet music, sound recordings and other cultural treasures and trash. The largest book is John James Audubon's meter-high "Birds of America." The smallest is the microdot-size "Old King Cole" with pages so teensy you turn them with a needle.
Brits and Pieces
The ledger that survived the 1814 fire was returned to the library in 1940 and is on view now--along with all sorts of other stuff--in an exhibit called "John Bull and Uncle Sam: Four Centuries of British-American Relations." The exhibit, which runs through March 4, is one of the first events of the bicentennial celebration.
The British-American cross-pollination is impressive. Using 10 sets of display cases, several long glass-top tables, three video kiosks and a large-screen television, the show makes the case that America emulated its mother country until the mid-1800s, when the tables shifted and England began imitating the United States.
In one metaphoric set of American illustrations, John Bull, a mythical character who once symbolized England, grows smaller as Uncle Sam, the personification of America, grows taller and stronger. There are also many illustrations of the United States as seen by the British--a land of scalpings and hangings and massacres.
The exhibit points out that the steam engine, locomotives, electromagnets, flush toilets and other inventions came from England and were developed by Americans. The abolitionist and suffragist movements originated in England. Even the computer has its roots in commonwealth ingenuity. In an 1834 letter, mathematician Charles Babbage asks the Duke of Wellington to finance his invention of the calculator.
In one quasi-blasphemous moment, the British are almost given credit for inventing baseball. "A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, Intended for the Amusement of Little Master Tommy, and Pretty Miss Polly. . . . " from the 1760s contains a poem called "Base-Ball":
The Ball once struck off
Away flies the Boy
To the next defined Post
And then Home with Joy
But the second verse could be read that the Brits discovered base-ball in America.
Thus Britons for Lucre
Fly over the Main;
But, with Pleasure transported,
Return back again.
"The principal example of American influence," said the exhibit's curator, James Hutson, "would be the popular music that inundated Britain after the First World War--jazz and blues.
"Then there's the American consumerism that washed over Britain after the Second World War--laundromats, supermarkets, British fast-food chains like Wimpy and drinking beer out of 'tins,' as they call cans."
Hutson said, "All this kind of influx has really made a very powerful imprint on Britain and has led to the Americanization of Britain."
There are photos of British-American couples--Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson; Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan; Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. And there are plenty of references to war and commerce and science and literature. Through displays on rock-and-roll (the Beatles' debt to Chuck Berry), movies (American renderings of British novels) and various other endeavors, the exhibit-goer learns how this country has matured and prospered.
And how American influence has occasionally smoked, if not burned, the mother country.
CAPTION: The Library of Congress's "Wizard of Oz" exhibit opens April 24.
CAPTION: JoAnn Jenkins, LOC chief of staff, wants the public to recognize the educational role libraries play, even in the age of point and click.
CAPTION: A 1806 cartoon lampooning U.S. plans to buy west Florida from Spain.
CAPTION: The Library of Congress's commemoration includes exhibits and a postal stamp.