The nation’s founders were readers. They relied on books to an extraordinary degree when creating a new government. Yet talk of a national library started only after the 1790 agreement to locate the nation’s new capital in an unremarkable town on the Potomac, a place without libraries or bookstores. Accordingly, a Library of Congress was proposed. In the sumptuously illustrated “America’s Greatest Library,” John Y. Cole, the official historian of the Library of Congress, offers a new look at its inspiring but sometimes troubled history.

Like many American institutions, the Library claims modest beginnings. In 1800, John Adams, then America’s second president, saw to it that an allowance was made for a library for use by congressmen, basically a law library. After British soldiers burned the Capitol along with its library during the War of 1812 — an act fiercely denounced by Thomas Jefferson as “British Vandalism” — Congress agreed to make a new start with the purchase of Jefferson’s polymathic library on the grounds that “there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.” Cole explains that this decision would have a lasting effect on the identity of the fledgling institution, as Jefferson’s “concept of universality” became the rationale for its “comprehensive collecting policies.”

While the Library was first meant to serve at the pleasure of Congress — its access limited to members along with the president and vice president — in time it came to broaden its role as a “repository of knowledge for the entire country.” For the first half of the 19th century, that role was severely limited. Funding was likewise tentative, being frequently subject to congressional indifference. It is only in the Gilded Age that the Library undertook a growth that paralleled that of the rest of the nation. This was accomplished under the guiding hand of Ainsworth Rand Spofford, whose ambition to transform it into a truly national library was fulfilled in 1897, when the collection moved into its own building, which he proudly christened “the book Palace of the American People.”

The Library continued to expand its mission and reported for duty in times of war, too. Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam furnished books for Doughboys in the First World War, firmly committed, as he was, “to the Library’s role as a protector of democracy.” Poet Archibald MacLeish, appointed librarian on the eve of the Second World War, took custody of the Lincoln Cathedral copy of the Magna Carta from the British during the Battle of Britain. Just days after Pearl Harbor, MacLeish secretly moved it, along with the United States Constitution, Declaration of Independence and other treasures, to Fort Knox for safekeeping during the war. MacLeish roused his fellow librarians by telling them they “must become active and not passive agents of the democratic process.”

Amid sober timetables and budget figures, stories of individual librarians and donors shine out in this book. African American historian Daniel Alexander Payne Murray, an assistant librarian at the Library of Congress, published his “Preliminary List of books and Pamphlets by Negro Authors for Paris Exposition and Library of Congress” in 1900, believing that “the true test of the progress of a people is to be found in their literature.” Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert deposited his father’s papers with the Library in 1923, asking that they remain sealed for 21 years after his death, leading scholars to anticipate prodigious revelations (none were forthcoming). V. Valta Parma, the first rare-book curator at the Library, set about preserving dime novels and children’s literature, while also taking the trouble to acquire a Gutenberg Bible. In 1937, Rockwell Kent designed the Library’s stately bookplate, and in 1946, Mary Pickford donated her personal collection of films to the Library, adding to its growing store of them. In return, Hollywood lovingly portrayed the Library’s opulent interiors in movies such as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “All the President’s Men” and “National Treasure.”

The Library continued to add programs and services: In 1897, a reading room for the blind; in 1928 the Archive of American Folk Song (later directed by renowned folklorist Alan Lomax); in 1938, the position of Consultant in Poetry (later Poet Laureate). In 1944, the Library’s Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Fund commissioned Martha Graham’s ballet “Appalachian Spring,” composed by Aaron Copland. In 2001, the Library launched its enormously popular National Book Festival, which now draws more than 100,000 participants each year. Beginning in 1980, the library introduced a computer filing system, and in the 1990s became an early adopter of the Internet. It boasts popular Twitter and YouTube accounts and keeps an eye fully trained on future technological expansions.

In 2016, Carla Hayden became the 14th Librarian of Congress, the first woman and the first African American to hold the post. In her foreword to this volume, she assures us that “there never has been a library — or an institution — quite like it.” Indeed, from meager beginnings with only 152 titles, the Library has grown to a collection of 110 million items of all kinds today, and it has survived fires and wars, fights for funding and a severe identity crisis to assume its place, as Teddy Roosevelt optimistically promised, as “the one national library of the United States.”

Ernest Hilbert is a poet and dealer in rare books.

Read more:

America's Greatest Library: An Illustrated History of the Library of Congress

By John Y. Cole

Giles. 256 pp. $39.95