A Year: Day to Day Men: 24th of December, Solar Year 2017

Namor the Sub-Mariner: Homo Mermanus

On December 24, 1851, a fire burns 35,000 volumes at the United States Library of Congress.

As Americans celebrated Christmas Eve, 1851, a fire ripped through the US Library of Congress in Washington, DC, destroying 35,000 volumes. A faulty chimney flue set off the blaze, which took two-thirds of the collection, including most of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library that had been sold to the institution in 1815.

Initially established in 1800 when President John Adams approved legislation that appropriated $5,000 to purchase “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress” — the first books, ordered from London, arrived in 1801. They were stored in the U.S. Capitol. Twelve years later, the British army invaded the city of Washington and burned the Capitol, including the 3,000-volume Library of Congress. Jefferson responded to that loss by selling his personal library of 6,487 volumes — the largest and finest in the country — to Congress to “recommence” the library.

After the fire of 1851, architect of the Capitol Thomas U. Walter presented a plan to repair and enlarge the Library room using fireproof materials throughout. The elegantly restored Library room was opened on August 23, 1853. Called by the press the “largest iron room in the world,” it was encircled by galleries and filled the west central front of the Capitol. A month before the opening, Pres. Franklin Pierce inspected the new Library in the company of British scientist Sir Charles Lyell, who pronounced it “the most beautiful room in the world.”

The current collection consists of more than 164 million total items: more than 38 million books and other printed materials, 3.6 million recordings, 14 million photographs, 5.5 million maps, 8.1 million pieces of sheet music and 70 million manuscripts. It also has 5,711 incunabula (early printed books before 1501) and 122,810,430 items in the nonclassified (special) collections. Although the Library is open to the public, only high-ranking government officials and Library employees may check out books and materials (except through interlibrary loan, which is available to the public.

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