Legislative Branch

Guide to House Records: Chapter 23 Library

Chapter 23. Records of the Joint Committees of Congress 1789-1968 (Record Group 128)

Table of Contents

Records of the Joint Committees of Congress 1789-1989 (Record Group 128) from Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States, 1789-1988

Joint Committee on the Library (1806-1968)

JC.025 On April 24, 1800, under an act to make further provision for the removal and accommodation of the Government of the United States (2 Stat. 55), $5000 was appropriated to purchase books for the use of Congress and to prepare an "apartment" for them in the Capitol. The act specified that the Secretary of the Senate and Clerk of the House were to make the purchase under the direction of a joint committee of both Houses and place the books in one apartment for the use of both Houses, "according to such regulations as the committee aforesaid shall devise and establish."

JC.026 The joint committee was appointed within a week, but no further reference to it appears in either the House or Senate Journal or the Annals of Congress. The Secretary did proceed with the purchase, however, because, in December 1801, another joint select committee was appointed "to take into consideration a statement made by the Secretary of the Senate, respecting books and maps purchased pursuant to a late act of Congress, and to make report respecting the future arrangement of the same." On December 21, the committee submitted its report, which indicated the room in which the books and maps would be placed, described the cases to be used for them, and specified loan policies and procedures, hours of operation, and other details. A manuscript copy of the report is among the records (H.C. 7). 1

JC.027 The Joint Committee on the Library became a standing committee by an act of February 21, 1806 (2 Stat. 350), which established an annual appropriation for the purchase of books for Congress under the direction of a joint committee "to be appointed every session of Congress, during the continuance of this appropriation." In time, the committee's jurisdiction expanded beyond its original, narrow focus to include matters relating to the Botanic Garden, the Smithsonian Institution, works of art in the Capitol, and other subjects.

JC.028 Records of the Joint Committee on the Library are available, in either the House or the Senate collection, for most Congresses before 1900 and infrequently thereafter. The records include manuscript committee reports, minutes of committee meetings, petitions and memorials, correspondence, bills, and resolutions on assorted topics.

JC.029 Some of the records reflect the historical development of the Library. There are a few annual reports of the Librarian of Congress, ranging from one dated April 11, 1807, to one for the fiscal year ending in 1962 (S.C. 10; H.C. 88-90). The earliest reports list the books donated to the library during the preceding year and indicate the donor of each. From the period immediately following the burning of the Capitol during the War of 1812, there is a letter from Samuel H. Smith, agent for Thomas Jefferson, offering to sell Jefferson's library to Congress. In addition, three committee reports among the records deal with this transaction (S.C. 13). A report from January 1816 addressed the question of where to house the books while Congress met in its temporary quarters (S.C. 14).

JC.030 Many of the letters and memorials among the records are from publishers seeking financial support from Congress for specific publications designed to inform the public about history or government. Some of the publications, such as Statutes At Large and the Dictionary of the United States Congress, developed into notable series of reference works (H.C. 28, 35). There are various papers relating to the publication of American State Papers by Gales and Seaton, 2 including a report of the Secretary of the Senate and Clerk of the House detailing their activities in selecting and transcribing the congressional documents that were to appear in the publication (H.C. 22). Certain reports, memorials, and letters deal with the purchase or publication of personal papers, including those of James Madison (S.C. 25), Alexander Hamilton (S.C. 29, 30), Thomas Jefferson (S.C. 28; H.C. 29), and General Nathanael Greene (H.C. 32).

JC.031 There are memorials and petitions relating to the dissemination of compilations of laws, congressional publications, and books. The New York Chamber of Commerce and the New York Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb (H.C. 23, 28) were among the groups that asked Congress to donate books or publications to their libraries. Other memorials, such as the one from William Brent, Jr., of Virginia, called for systematic distribution of such materials to all court houses, schools, or other entities (H.C. 25). Regular and systematic distribution of laws of the United States did occur, in fact, as a result of an act of April 20, 1818. The communication from Secretary of State Henry Clay that is attached to the joint committee's report of May 16, 1828 (H.C. 20), explained that no State received fewer than 110 copies of the annual publication of acts of Congress passed at the preceding session.

JC.032 Alexandre Vattemare, a French citizen and elector of the Department of the Seine and Oise, was interested in an even wider distribution of printed materials. He worked for years to establish an international system of exchange of government publications and of scientific and learned materials. Included among the records are memorials, letters, reports, and printed materials prepared by Vattemare (S.C. 26, 28, 30, 31; H.C. 26, 30). As a result of Vattemare's efforts, on June 26, 1848, Congress passed an act to regulate exchanges (9 Stat. 240), and Vattemare himself was appointed as the agent. A manuscript copy of his report on the exchanges is among the records (S.C. 31), as well as two letters of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney regarding certain exchanges with the French Government (S.C. 28).

JC.033 The 19th century witnessed widespread interest in the quest for scientific knowledge, and this is reflected in the unprecedented and unsolicited bequest of James Smithson, a wealthy Englishman who died in 1829. Under the terms of the will, Smithson's $500,000 estate was given to the United States, "to found, at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." Accordingly, on August 10, 1846, Congress created the Smithsonian Institution. Joint committee documents relating to the Smithsonian include petitions (H.C. 28-33), a committee report that includes a letter from Secretary of the Smithsonian Joseph Henry (H.C. 33), and letters regarding the international documents exchange program (S.C. 49). 3

JC.034 An interest in science is also evident in petitions from organizations such as the American Statistical Association (S.C. 28) and the American Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (S.C. 25). The National Institute for the Promotion of Science, a leading contender for receiving grants from the Smithson bequest, figures in several joint committee documents, including a committee report that reviews its history, organization, and extensive collections (S.C. 28; H.C. 28, 29).

JC.035 From 1838 to 1842, the Government-sponsored United States Exploring Expedition traveled to South America, Antarctica, the South Pacific, and Oregon Territory under the command of Lt. Charles Wilkes. Its scientists and crew charted and surveyed unknown waters and terrain, made meteorological and geological observations, and amassed significant collections of specimens and artifacts. The collections of the exploring expedition, and Government efforts to publish its findings, are discussed in the records (S.C. 29; H.C. 28, 33, 34). A petition from expedition naturalist Titian Peale details the personal articles that he lost when the U.S.S. Peacock sank as the expedition was entering the Columbia River (H.C. 33).

JC.036 Artists and their work appear regularly as topics among the records of the Joint Committee on the Library because of the committee's role in approving and purchasing artwork for the Capitol and because of its jurisdiction over the Smithsonian. Among the documents is a letter from sculptor Horatio Greenough defending his controversial statue of George Washington, seated and draped in a classical manner, and asking that it be moved outside to a location on the Capitol Grounds (S.C. 27). There are various letters advocating the purchase of Gilbert Stuart's portraits of the first five Presidents that were on display in the Capitol, including some reminiscences of the painter at work on them (S.C. 33). Memorials and petitions, printed press excerpts, letters, committee reports, and a descriptive catalog are among the materials relating to George Catlin's collection of 300 portraits, 200 other paintings, and writings relating to his travels among 48 tribes of North American Indians (H.C. 29; S.C. 30). Catlin's efforts to sell the collection to the United States for the Smithsonian Institution's art gallery eventually failed by one vote in the 32d Congress.

JC.037 The 20th-century records of the joint committee that are among RG 128 are relatively limited. They include committee minutes, 1912-13 and 1926-33, regarding artwork in the Capitol, the Botanic Garden, memorial commissions, and certain historical monuments and markers in the District of Columbia and elsewhere (S.C. 62 and bound volume 69th-72d Cong.). Correspondence, petitions, minutes, transcripts of hearings, memoranda, printed materials, and other papers are available for the years 1959-68. These dealt with numerous subjects, including the James Madison Memorial Building, facilities for the use of individual scholars, loans of books to Members of Congress and their staff, a Brookings Institution survey of Federal departmental libraries, and codification of Federal statutes regarding the Library of Congress (H.C. 88-90).

JC.038 Related records are in RG 233 and RG 46. Until 1947, the members of the Joint Committee on the Library comprised separate standing committees in each of the Houses they represented. 4 Records of the House Committee on the Library date from 1857 and are in RG 233, while records of the Senate Committee on the Library dating from 1873 are in RG 46. In contrast to the joint committee's records, the records of the separate standing committees are more complete for the 20th century.

This Web version is updated from time to time to include records processed since 1989.


1 From markings on the document, it is clear that this copy of the committee's report was used in the preparation of American State Papers. The report is published there in Miscellaneous, vol. 1, p. 253, no. 149. See para. JC.030 for information on the role of the Clerk of the House and Secretary of the Senate in the publication of American State Papers.

2 See Research Strategies for Using the Records of Congress for information on this publication and other reference works regarding Congress and its history.

3 See "Records of House Select Committees (1789-1846)" for information on records of the House Select Committee on the Smithsonian bequest, including a minute book that contains joint committee minutes.

4 After the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, members of the Joint Committee on the Library were drawn from the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration and the House Committee on House Administration.

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Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States House of Representatives at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-245). By Charles E. Schamel, Mary Rephlo, Rodney Ross, David Kepley, Robert W. Coren, and James Gregory Bradsher. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.