Book Talk: A Storied Past

by Erica Moody

In ‘America’s Greatest Library,’ Library of Congress historian John Y. Cole presents 217 years of history in word and photo.

Nobody knows the Library of Congress better than John Cole. Its first and only official historian, Cole began his tenure there as an intern more than 50 years ago and even wrote his graduate school dissertation about it.

“I fell in love with the history of the Library of Congress right away,” he says. It’s hard not to be enamored with the grandeur of both the historic building and its vast collections — around 167 million of them on approximately 838 miles of bookshelves make it the largest library in the world. His new book, “America’s Greatest Library: An Illustrated History of the Library of Congress” (GILES) traces its history since 1800.

The modern reconstruction of Thomas Jefferson’s 1815 library is on exhibit in the southeast pavilion of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building. (Photo by Shawn Miller)

With such an erudite author one might expect the book to be rather dense, but it’s actually quite readable. Cole says it was meant to be so— in fact, he took out footnotes altogether in favor of easily digestible nuggets of information conveyed in timelines of events organized by year plus in-depth mini-stories that focus on such interesting historical aspects as “The First Presidential Library” and “Founding—And Lost—Documents.”

“One of the things that always knocks me over is the fact that we have such a variety of collections,” Cole says. You’ll find the original score of “Porgy and Bess,” one of only three perfect vellum copies of the Gutenberg Bible and 303 glass-plate negatives documenting early flights of Orville and Wilbur Wright, to name a few items. From maps and legal materials to movie memorabilia, “we have lots of materials about American culture,” he says. “That’s what makes us stand out.”

The Library of Congress’ first building of its own was completed in 1897.

This story appears in the June 2018 issue of Washington Life Magazine.

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