11 Facts About the Library of Congress

Thomas Jefferson Building of the LOC. Image Credit: TheAgency via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Thomas Jefferson Building of the LOC. Image Credit: TheAgency via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

For more than two centuries, the Library of Congress (LOC) and its staff have served as invaluable resources for American legislators. But their mission isn’t limited to U.S. politics. The Library of Congress catalog includes iconic films, historical documents, and your tweets about lunch. In short, it's a cultural treasure. Here are 11 facts worth knowing about the Washington, D.C.-based establishment.

1. The Library of Congress is the nation's oldest cultural institution.

Founded in 1800, the Library of Congress is America’s oldest federal cultural institution. It was established by the same bill that officially moved the capital from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. The library was conceived of as a resource available exclusively to members of Congress, containing "such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress." That remains the case today, though citizens can read books on site or request them at their local library through an interlibrary loan.

2. Thomas Jefferson helped rebuild the Library of Congress catalog after a fire.

Not long after it was established, tragedy struck the Library of Congress: Its contents were destroyed when the Capitol Building was set on fire by British troops during the War of 1812. Approximately 3000 books (mostly law-related) were lost in the blaze, but luckily a friend of Washington D.C. owned a collection that was even bigger. Thomas Jefferson’s personal library comprised well over 6000 volumes, making it the largest library in the country at the time. He agreed to sell all of his books to Congress for $23,950 in 1815. Jefferson's contributions significantly expanded the scope of the library, by including books on art, science, and philosophy. (The increased diversity of the collection was a subject of criticism at the time, to which Jefferson responded by saying "there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”) Sadly, the library met with another tragedy when a second fire tore through it on Christmas Eve 1851, burning two-thirds of Jefferson’s contribution.

3. James Madison first proposed the Library of Congress.

Seventeen years prior to the LOC's official formation, James Madison proposed the idea of a special library for Congress. He planted the idea as a Continental Congress member in 1783 when he suggested compiling a list of books to which lawmakers could refer. As president, Madison approved the purchase of Jefferson’s personal library in 1814.

4. It makes Congress's job a lot easier.

Members of Congress drafting legislation don’t necessarily need to do the nitty-gritty research themselves: There’s a whole team [PDF] of lawyers, librarians, economists, and scientists employed through the Library of Congress to do it for them. Established in 1914, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) is a legislative department within the LOC responsible for supporting lawmakers through every step of the lawmaking process. Based on what’s asked of them, CRS employees supply House and Senate members with reports, briefings, seminars, presentations, or consultations detailing research on the issue in question. The CRS is currently staffed with 600 analysts. In any given year, a single researcher responds to hundreds of congressional requests.

5. It's the largest library on Earth.

With over 164 million items in its inventory, the LOC is the world’s largest library. In addition to the 38 million books and other printed materials on the premises, the institution contains millions of photographs, recordings, and films. It also houses some record-breaking collections: more maps, comics, newspapers, and phonebooks can each be found there than any other place on Earth. The whole thing is stored on about 838 miles of bookshelves.

6. The Library of Congress contains some surprising items.

The Library of Congress is home to an eclectic collection, with books ranging in size from a tiny copy of “Ole King Cole” to a 5-foot-by-7-foot photo book filled with color images of Bhutan. Some items, like a Gutenberg Bible and a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, feel right at home in the historic library. Others, like Rosa Parks’s peanut butter pancakes recipe, are a bit more unexpected. Additional noteworthy artifacts include Bob Hope’s joke collection, George Gershwin’s piano, and the contents of Abraham Lincoln's pockets the night he was shot.

7. The Library of Congress owns materials from around the world.

The Library of Congress isn’t solely dedicated to American documents. The institution possesses materials acquired from all around the globe, including 3 million items from Asia and 10 million items in the Iberian, Latin American, and Caribbean collections. Over half of the books in their inventory are written in a language other than English. In total, over 460 languages are represented, and their end goal is to eventually have at least one item from every nation. The LOC also maintains overseas offices in New Delhi, India; Cairo, Egypt; Islamabad, Pakistan; Jakarta, Indonesia; Nairobi, Kenya; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to acquire, catalog, and preserve items that might be hard to access otherwise.

8. It preserves America's most important films.

Since the National Film Preservation Act was passed in 1988, 700 "culturally, historically, or aesthetically" significant films have been selected for the LOC archives. Up to 25 entries are chosen each year by a board of industry professionals, and the only rule is that submissions must be at least 10 years old. Beyond that, they can be anything from beloved comedy blockbusters like Ghostbusters (1984) to health class classics like The Story of Menstruation (1946). Pieces added to the National Film Registry are kept in a climate-controlled storage space where they can theoretically last for centuries.

9. The Library of Congress serves patrons of all abilities.

In 1931 the Library of Congress launched The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). Today the service offers free Braille and audio books, either through digital downloads or physical deliveries, to people with visual impairments or other issues that limit their reading abilities. Offerings include a wide array of books and magazines, as well as the world’s largest collection of Braille music. NLS librarians are currently undertaking the painstaking process of scanning every sheet of Braille music onto their computer system. Once that project is complete, the National Library Service’s entire collection will be fully digitized.

10. Only three librarians of Congress have been actual librarians.

When nominating someone to head the largest library in the world, presidents rarely choose actual librarians. They’re more likely to select a scholar, historian, or some other veteran of academia for the job. Of the 14 Librarians of Congress we’ve had, current title-holder Carla Hayden is one of just three to come into the role with prior librarian experience. (She is also the first woman and the first African American to hold the job.) On top of running the world’s largest library, Hayden is also responsible for managing relations with Congress, selecting the Poet Laureate, and overseeing the U.S. Copyright Office.

11. It receives every public tweet you write.

The government isn’t just responsible for cataloging tweets coming out of the White House. In 2010, Twitter agreed to donate every public tweet in its archive to the Library of Congress. That amounts to several hundred million tweets a day. In addition to documenting the rise and fall of #dressgate and live tweets of The Walking Dead, the archive would also act as an invaluable data source for tracking language and societal trends. Unfortunately, that archive isn’t much closer to being completed than the day the deal was announced. The LOC has yet to develop a way to organize the information, and for the past seven years, unprocessed tweets have been have been stored out of sight on a server. There’s still no word on what the next step will be, but that might change with the newest Librarian of Congress. Unlike her predecessor, Carla Hayden is known for taking a digital-forward approach to librarianship.

The Mental Floss Store Is Back!

Mental Floss Store
Mental Floss Store

You've been asking about it for months, and today we can finally confirm that the Mental Floss Store is back up and running! Simply head here to find dozens of T-shirts with all sorts of unique designs to choose from, whether you’re in the market for a pi pun, a risqué grammar joke, or something only your fellow bookworms will appreciate. You can even use your new Mental Floss shirt to teach your friends all about scurvy.

Mental Floss Store

If you’re just in the mood to express your love of all things Mental Floss, you can also get our darling little logo on phone cases, tote bags, mugs, baby bibs, and more.

Mental Floss Store

Head on over to the Mental Floss Store to see our entire collection. And if you use the code FLOSSERS at checkout by end of day Sunday, you'll get 20 percent off your order. 

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

The Hidden Meanings Behind 11 Common Tombstone Symbols

Tombstone symbols can sometimes be hard to interpret.
Tombstone symbols can sometimes be hard to interpret.
Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

Walk through any cemetery in the world and you’ll find a solemn landscape that honors loved ones that have passed on. Accompanying the inscriptions of names, dates, and family crests are some common symbols that crop up repeatedly on tombstones. If you’ve ever wondered what they could mean, take a look at some of the explanations behind the graveyard graphics.

1. Eye

The eyes have it.Valerie Everett, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

If you feel someone may be looking at you in the cemetery, you might be near a tombstone engraved with an eye. Often surrounded in a burst of sunlight or a triangle, an eye typically represents the all-seeing eye of God and could denote that the decedent was a Freemason.

2. Clasped Hands

Hands on a tombstone can mean several things.Christina Ramey, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Seeing two hands clasped together can illustrate shaking hands or holding hands, depending on the position of the thumbs. A handshake can mean a greeting to eternal life. If clasped hands have different cuffs, it could indicate a bond between the deceased and a spouse or relative. If one hand is higher than the other, it could also mean that a person is being welcomed by a loved one or a higher power. The hand engraving grew into wide use during the Victorian era.

3. Dove

Doves appear in a variety of poses on tombstones.Tim Green, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

A dove usually symbolizes peace and the Holy Spirit, but its specific meaning depends on how the bird is posed. If it’s flying upward, the soul is ascending to heaven. If it’s flying down, it represents the Holy Spirit arriving at the baptism of Jesus Christ. If it’s holding an olive branch in its mouth, it refers to an ancient Greek belief that olive branches could ward off evil spirits.

4. Broken Chain

Chains on tombstones can be linked or broken.Carl Wycoff, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Medieval wisdom once held that a golden chain kept the soul in the body. In death, the chain is broken and the soul is freed. If the chain is unbroken and if it features the letters FLT (for Friendship, Love, and Truth), it probably means the deceased belonged to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization that seeks to promote charitable causes and offer aid.

5. Book

The meaning of a book on a tombstone isn't always easy to read.Carl Wycoff, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Was the deceased an avid reader? Maybe, but not necessarily. An open book on a tombstone might refer to a sacred text like the Bible, the “book of life,” or the person’s willingness to learn. If you see a dog-earned corner on the right side, it could indicate the person’s life ended prematurely and before their “book” was finished.

6. Finger Pointing Up

An index finger pointing up can direct visitors to look up.Christina Ramey, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

A hand with the index finger raised skyward is one of the more ambiguous symbols found in graveyards. It might be pointing to heaven, or indicate the fact that the decedent has risen from the land of the living.

7. Corn

Ears of corn could mean the deceased was a farmer.mike krzeszak, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

A corn stalk on a tombstone means the deceased could have been a farmer; it used to be a custom to send corn instead of floral arrangements to a farmer’s family. It might represent other kinds of grain. Alternately, corn seeds can symbolize rebirth.

8. Scroll

Scrolls on a tombstone can refer to an unknown future.Kelly Teague, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

A scroll engraved on a tombstone with both ends rolled up can indicate that part of life has already unfolded while the future is hidden.

9. Lamp

Lamps can mean a love of knowledge.Sean, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

A lamp on a tombstone could speak to a love of learning or knowledge, or it might refer to how the spirit is immortal.

10. Camel

Camels aren't something you'd expect to see on a tombstone.Glen, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

While this particular camel signifies the Imperial Camel Corps that occupied desert regions during World War I, a camel can also represent a long journey or a skilled guide—in this case, for the afterlife.

11. Hourglass

An hourglass can be a message to the living.justiny8s, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

As you may have guessed, the hourglass symbolizes the march of time. An hourglass on its end may mean the deceased died suddenly, while a winged hourglass communicates how quickly time flies. It may also be construed as a message to the living—time is short, so don’t waste it.