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 The Library of Congress catalog includes iconic films, historical documents, and your tweets about lunch.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.

11 Masks That Will Keep You Safe and Stylish

Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods
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10 Facts About Wilford Brimley

Paramount Home Entertainment
Paramount Home Entertainment

Hollywood lost one of its longtime icons on August 1, 2020, with the passing of Wilford Brimley. Some knew the 85-year-old from a storied big-screen career in films like 1993’s The Firm and 1985’s Cocoon. Others knew him as the spokesperson for Quaker Oats or as an advocate for diabetes monitoring on late-night television.

However you came to be aware of Wilford Brimley, you were probably charmed by his genial nature and hirsute facial appearance. But Brimley had a career that went beyond the screen; read on for more facts about the actor’s life, his time as a bodyguard for one of the world’s most famous men, and why he was not friendly with the man who portrayed Yoda.

1. Wilford was Wilford Brimley's middle name.

Born in Salt Lake City in 1934, Anthony Wilford Brimley moved to California with his parents when he was 6 years old. He elected to drop out of high school so that he could join the Marines. He served on the Aleutian Islands for three years before returning to civilian life as a ranch hand and horse wrangler. Those skills eventually came in handy when Westerns became a popular television genre, and Brimley often found work as an extra or background player. When he got screen billing, Brimley initially used his real first name—Anthony, or Tony—instead of his middle name, Wilford.

2. Robert Duvall got Wilford Brimley into acting.

While working as a horse-riding extra, Brimley became friendly with actor Robert Duvall (The Godfather) and was encouraged by Duvall to try his hand at more substantial parts. "He’s always been really encouraging," Brimley said of the Oscar-winning actor in 2014. “He’s always been a marvelous example of honesty and integrity.” The two appeared onscreen together in 1982’s Tender Mercies, about a country singer (Duvall) trying to reconnect with his daughter. Brimley played his agent and also met his future wife during production.

3. Wilford Brimley was a bodyguard for Howard Hughes.

Before getting work as a stuntman and actor, Brimley worked as a bodyguard for aviator-turned-recluse Howard Hughes. But the actor was always reluctant to discuss Hughes, a famously reclusive man in his later years. “He was a good guy,” Brimley once said of his former employer. The job came in part through Brimley’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: Hughes reportedly preferred to employ Mormons, as he liked that they didn't smoke or drink and they rarely talked.

4. Wilford Brimley didn't train to be an actor.

Brimley’s genuine demeanor didn’t come to him through any kind of Method approach. He was never formally trained as an actor, choosing instead to draw upon his decades and self-professed lean years working various jobs (bartender, horseman) before getting a break in 1979’s The China Syndrome. “Training?” he asked a reporter rhetorically in 1984. “I’ve never been to acting classes, but I’ve had 50 years of training. My years as an extra were good background for learning about camera techniques and so forth ... basically, my method is to be honest.”

5. Wilford Brimley enjoyed mooning people.

Bryan Bedder, Getty Images

While Brimley’s onscreen presence was normally one of sedate wisdom, the actor was not averse to showing his buttocks if the timing was right. Speaking with the Chicago Tribune in 1988, actor Steve Guttenberg, Brimley’s co-star in the Cocoon movies, mentioned that Brimley sometimes mooned people on set. “The biggest fun I had on the Cocoon shoot came when Wilford Brimley would moon the audience, or the camera,” Guttenberg said. “He has a running contest with Robert Duvall to see who can moon the most people at one time. Duvall has the record [as] he drove through a town when it was having a parade and mooned 2000.”

6. Wilford Brimley surprised an elementary school class.

While shooting a film in Louisiana in 1990, Brimley struck up a friendship with Elizabeth Landman, the then-9-year-old daughter of the set’s food caterer. When Landman returned to school to tell her friends at St. Joseph’s Catholic School that she had met the man from Cocoon, no one believed her. Brimley decided to boost her credibility by visiting the school unannounced one day to sign autographs and answer questions about his career.

7. Wilford Brimley was not opposed to a cockfight.

In 1998, Brimley attended a rally in Phoenix, Arizona to oppose a statewide ban on cockfighting—an often-illegal practice that sees bettors wager on the outcome of a fight to the death between roosters equipped with razors on their feet. The actor argued that the law would be a slippery slope, one eventually leading to a ban on hunting dogs. He also said that while he lived in Utah, he visited Arizona to attend the competitions. “I’m trying to protect the lifestyle of freedom and choice for my grandchildren,” he said. The activity was eventually outlawed in Arizona in 2007.

8. Wilford Brimley was also a singer.

Though he “never made a thing about it” and proclaimed he was “not a great singer,” Brimley had a passion for covering popular music. In the 1990s, the actor performed at Los Angeles-area clubs after rehearsing with pianist Bob Smale and bassist Don Bagley for two years. He performed “My Funny Valentine,” “It Had to Be You,” and “All the Things You Are,” among other hits, and later made appearances on the Jerry Lewis telethon and the ill-fated Pat Sajak Show. He also recorded a number of albums. When Brimley agreed to hit the stage at Cal State Northridge for a jazz endowment benefit fund in 1993, Joel Leach, the school’s jazz band director, said that Brimley had a warm, rich voice. Brimley offered to do the benefit for free and even left filming of The Firm in order to appear.

9. Wilford Brimley got into a feud with Yoda.

While shooting the 1997 feature In and Out, Brimley was said to have gotten upset with director Frank Oz. Oz—a performer who operated and voiced Yoda in several Star Wars movies—told an interviewer that Brimley was one of three actors who “hate my guts.” (The other two were Marlon Brando and Cher.) Neither Oz nor Brimley ever elaborated on what transpired between the two to cause the rift.

10. Wilford Brimley was active on Twitter.

While he took only sporadic acting roles in recent years, Brimley wasn’t completely unplugged from the public. He had a verified Twitter account on which he—or an authorized representative—tweeted inspirational quotes and occasionally took note of his contemporary status as a meme source. Brimley once responded to an observation that action star Tom Cruise, who was 56 at the time, was five years older than Brimley was when he played a geriatric in Cocoon. “This is still hard for me to believe,” Brimley wrote.