6 Unique Tomes in the Library of Congress

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
As one of the most popular sites for visitors to Washington D.C., the Library of Congress houses a wealth of history and knowledge of the United States. At its founding in 1800, the library housed 6,487 books. Today, that number has risen to 16 million, with over 120 million other pieces of important historical documentation. Every day, the library receives more than 15,000 items and of those, adds about 12,000 to the collection. These materials are acquired through gift, purchase, and from exchanges with domestic and international libraries. Out of all these incredible pieces of history, there are a few that stand out. These are 6 of the most unique tomes in the Library of Congress.

Jefferson’s copy of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.The book collection of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson’s massive book collection served as the foundation for the Library. At the time of its creation, the Library was housed in the United States Capitol Building. However, in 1814, much of Jefferson’s donated library was destroyed when the Capitol burned to the ground. The remaining 6,487 books from his personal library were bought by the government, and used to start the new Library of Congress in a new location. The topics of these books ranged from science and politics, to fine arts and philosophy. Today, Jefferson’s collection forms the epicenter around which the rest of the Library is built around.

Lessing J. Rosenwald’s illustrated books

The collection of Lessing J. Rosenwald’s illustrated books is one of the most popular items in the Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections Division. It contains illustrated books from the last six centuries, and manuscripts from the three centuries before that. Rarities amongst this collection are the woodcut books, early 16th century illustrated books, writings of William Blake, and the 20th-century livres des peintres. Rosenwald spent much of his life seeking books that reflected the earliest printers and evolutions in printing technology. In total, there are 2,653 items within the collection.

Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America.The Confederate States of America collection

This 1,812 volume collection houses some of the most transformative pieces of literature from the Confederacy during the American Civil War Era. Items like almanacs, textbooks, sermons, and works of history, literature, politics, and military science offer viewers a glimpse in the book publication and culture of the American South in the mid-1800s. For example, the “Confederate Recipe Book” contains recipes for apple pie without apples, pea pudding, and a variety of ways to make bread using the limited resources available to Southerners at the time. The same book contains home remedies for common ailments like colds and sore throats, as well as tips for altering the garments of women who could not afford to buy new ones.

Earliest maps of the American Colonies

The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1783, acknowledged the United States as an independent nation. In 1784, Abel Buell created the New and Correct Map of the United States of North America, which is today regarded as the first map of the U.S. to be created, printed, and published in America. Buell’s map is unique in that it reveals a time in American history when social and political conflicts made boundaries between states blurry. Modern state lines were not established until the Constitution was adopted in 1787. There are only 7 known copies of the map. Along with the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, Yale University, Connecticut Historical Society, the British Library and British National Archives, and Spain each hold a copy. 

A page from the Gutenberg Bible.Gutenberg Bible

The Gutenberg Bible was the first book ever printed, and is one of the crown jewels of the Library of Congress. Its creation marked a transition in bookmaking of medieval Europe in its usage of the moveable metal type. The book was created by Johann Gutenberg in 1455, and was regarded as a masterpiece at the time. The copy owned by the Library of Congress was bought in 1930, and is printed on vellum. It’s one of the three known existing vellum copies.

A book the size of a period at the end of a sentence

Visitors might require a powerful magnifying glass to read this next unique tome in the Library of Congress. “Old King Cole” is the smallest book housed in the Nation’s Library, and comes in around the size of a period at the end of a sentence. It was issued by Gleniffer Press in 1985, and was declared the smallest book using offset lithography in the world by the ‘Guinness Book of World Records.’ “Old King Cole” is a British nursery rhyme that was first sung in the early 1700s. This tiny book stands at just 0.9mm in height.

Each of these unique tomes offers their visitors a glimpse into a slice of American history. They mark pivotal moments that forever changed the course of American politics and social norms, offering a nuanced look into parts of American history rarely seen. Perfectly preserved within the Library of Congress, these unique tomes are a must-see for those visiting the nation’s capital.