P.O. BOX 1586; MANASSAS, VA 20108; 703-369-5017


America's Library: The Story of the Library of Congress 1800-2000 (2000) by James Conaway. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.

"To work in the circular, central reading room of the Library of Congress is to get the surreal impression that one is inside Thomas Jefferson's cerebellum. This vast yet intimate space literally was designed, a century ago, around our third president's book collection, which he conveyed to the nation under circumstances that will be related in the following pages. Brain-like, it silently throbs with knowledge. Invisible connections -- fact to fact, thought to thought, thesis to antithesis -- flash back and forth at who knows how many million times a minute, whenever we lesser scholars (mere cell clusters in comparison!) puzzle out our own connections below." From One Writer's Library by Edmund Morris, Author (America's Library, 2000, p. ix).

This beautifully designed book provides the reader with a detailed history of the Library of Congress. It carefully documents the founding of the Library which was embedded in the historical roots of our nation and its founding fathers -- particularly Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison and James Monroe. The book also contains numerous historical pictures and photographs of the rich items from the Library's extensive collections. For example, there are photographs of Jefferson's home (Monticello), interior and exterior views of the early locations of the Library, pictures of many individuals who played important roles in its development, Civil War photographs by Mathew Brady, maps, and photographs of creative people such as Walt Whitman and Leonard Bernstein. Detailed discussions are presented in conjunction with these materials.

Edmund Morris's essay in the introductory section expresses the life this great library has given to historical figures and collections in different areas such as politics (e.g., a biography of Theodore Roosevelt written by Morris) and music (e.g., the original manuscript of Anton von Webern's 1938 string quartet which Morris viewed and then later heard at the Kennedy Center). The Library began in 1800 as a result of discussions between Jefferson and the United States Congress. At this time, Congress purchased books from European booksellers, and in 1802 President Jefferson signed a bill establishing a library for the use of Congress in the north wing of the Capitol. Jefferson was instrumental from the beginning in determining the types and range of books selected. His main concern was to promote freedom of thought and the exploration of ideas through reading and scholarship. To classify the books acquired by Congress, he prepared a catalog specifying different branches of science, law, politics, parliamentary procedures, encyclopedias, dictionaries in different languages, history and philosophy. He was assisted in starting this collection by John James Beckley who was Clerk of the House of Representatives and a staunch supporter of the Democratic-Republicans who were opposed to the Federalists.

The first Library of Congress was burned in August 1814 when the British army invaded Washington and destroyed all major government buildings including the Executive Mansion and the Capitol. They used the Library's books as fuel to start the fire, an act of barbarity compared to the burning of the ancient Library of Alexandria, Egypt. The American people and Congress lost interest in restoring it because of the disorganization that existed following the War of 1812. Again, Jefferson came to the rescue by offering his personal collection of books to start a new Library of Congress. A joint committee of Congress authorized the purchase of his books in 1814 for the amount of $23,950. These volumes covered all areas of political and natural philosophy in English, French, Spanish, German, Latin, Greek and Russian, reflecting Jefferson's critical Enlightenment mind and wide-range of interests. His classification scheme divided the books into forty-four areas based on Francis Bacon's arrangement of knowledge.

Unfortunately another fire devastated the Library of Congress thirty-seven years later in 1851 when it was still located in the Capitol. Thirty-five thousand volumes were destroyed including two-thirds of Jefferson's original books and many valuable historical documents and art works. The Library was restored in 1853 with enlarged quarters in the Capitol. In subsequent years during the Civil War, it began an era of major changes when President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ainsworth Spofford as the sixth Librarian of Congress. He served in this position for thirty-three years (1864-97), and was influential in building it into a national institution that concentrated on serving all citizens. During his long tenure, he obtained many large collections that were donated or sold by citizens. Among these major collections was Peter Force's (former mayor of Washington) library of 22,529 books and 40,000 pamphlets

Spofford also influenced Congress to make the Library responsible for registering copyrights beginning in 1870. The implications for this responsibility were enormous for growth since it would receive two copies of each book, periodical, musical and dramatic work, etc. as a part of the copyright procedure. He predicted that in a century the Library would contain 2.5 million volumes. In order to accommodate this rapidly expanding collection, Spofford proposed (1872) the construction of a separate library building which was approved by Congress in 1877. After languishing in political and design debates for about ten years, Congress finally approved the architectural plans in April 1886 for a library building based upon an Italian Renaissance design. In early 1897, the new Library of Congress building opened to citizens who, upon entering the beautiful pavilion, viewed the portico that contained the busts of individuals selected by Spofford -- across the front from left to right -- Emerson, Irving, Goethe, Franklin, Macaulay, Hawthorne and Scott.

Other prominent Librarians of Congress after Spofford were: (1) Herbert Putnam who served from 1899 to 1939. He established the Library War Service Program for American soldiers during World War I; (2) Archibald MacLeish, Pulitzer Prize winning poet, whose tenure was from 1939 to 1944. He became the leader of a library that included approximately six million books and pamphlets -- it had twenty-five million items when he resigned; and (3) Daniel J. Boorstin, historian of America, who served from 1975 to 1987. Boorstin presided over the opening of the James Madison building in 1980, the largest library building in the world. He also established the Center for the Book, an institution that promotes national interest in books and reading. The current head is James H. Billington, an expert in Russian history and international affairs. Under his direction, the Library has used computer technology to conserve books and items of American history

Conaway's book provides gifted students and their teachers with a well-researched description of the history, rationale and development of this great institution. It should be used by all readers to learn about the important role that books and other media have played in the development of American society. We enthusiastically recommend America's Library to all explorers of the human imagination.

André Maurois: Biographer of Gifted Minds by Michael E. Walters

Center for the Study of the Humanities in the Schools

"Ay, Sir, and though I sit down now, the time will come when you will hear me." André Maurois on Disraeli's maiden speech in Parliament. From Disraeli (p. 121, 1980, Time-Life edition).

Research on the psychological needs of gifted students indicates that many of them believe they are treated as enfant terribles and mentally unbalanced, e.g., hyperactive, overly-sensitive, and unnecessarily bored by the mainstream curriculum. The Frenchman, André Maurois (1885-1967), wrote biographies about famous British and French writers and statesmen such as Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust, Percy Shelley, Benjamin Disraeli and the French woman writer, George Sand. These books can be used to allay the above stereotypes of giftedness. Maurois explored the unique personalities of those he wrote about. Each book is a study in the sensibility of gifted individuals, and provides the reader with a great deal of reading enjoyment. Although most of his books are unfortunately out-of-print, they can usually be located in most public libraries and secondhand bookstores.

Maurois's style is very significant. His biographies were written in a beautiful and exciting prose, and he created works that celebrated the lives of his subjects. "The search for historical truth is the work of the scholar; the search for the expression of a personality is rather the work of the artist; can the two things be done together?" (From the Editors' Preface, Time-Life edition, p. xii, Disraeli (1980) by André Maurois). Maurois's biographies answered his own question. For each gifted individual he wrote about, there were both detailed factual presentations and an explanation of that person's psychological construct. Gifted students would obviously appreciate these biographies as they can easily identify with the attributes Maurois described concerning his subjects' struggles and life history.

Most important of all is the benefit that minority and gifted females can gain by reading Maurois's biographies. Many of his biographies were concerned with how individuals overcame harsh prejudice directed against them despite their talents. The prejudices he described include racial (Dumas was Black), religious (Proust and Disraeli had Jewish backgrounds) and gender (George Sand was a woman). Therefore, these biographies have an important meaning for today's gifted students.

André Maurois's life is a unique example of the problems of living in the 20th Century. He served in both world wars. As a French Jew, he had to flee the country during the Nazi occupation of France. Many of his biographies were written to defend the cause of democracy in a multi-cultural society. The books and life of this outstanding writer can serve as a form of bibliotherapy for gifted students. He was a writer whose works are perhaps more relevant today than they were during his lifetime. Therefore, it is timely that he be rediscovered, read and appreciated for the great genius that he was.

Maurice D. Fisher, Publisher, Copyright © by Gifted Education Press, December 2000-January 2001