A Note on Historical Preservation on the 165th Anniversary of the Library of Congress Fire of 1851

On this day in 1851, a spark from a stove causes a devastating fire at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and destroys about 2/3rds of its 55,000 volumes, including most of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library, sold to the institution in 1815.

This was not the first time that the Library’s collection was ravaged by fire. When the British army invaded Washington, DC, and burned the capitol during the War of 1812, they destroyed the Library of Congress’s then 3,000 volume of books and documents.

We have lost large amounts of the world’s documentary heritage due to war, fire, water, gas and heat, dust, and just plain old neglect.

As the late historian Pauline Maier described in her extraordinary work “American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence,” many of our nation’s most treasured documents were not always treated with reverence, or even care. The Declaration of Independence, one of our national treasures, serves as a particularly striking example of how our nation has evolved in its treatment of precious historic texts.

In 1776, the Declaration of Independence was copied onto low-grade parchment – the “ordinary type of colonial manufacture that could be easily found on sale in Philadelphia.” The Declaration then went on to become “one of the most abused documents in the history of preservation . . . battered and bandaged since its birth.”

The Continental Congress likely transported the document, along with other papers, as it moved from place to place throughout the Revolutionary War. Later, the Declaration would sit, along with the national government, in New York and Philadelphia, until, in 1800, it was moved to the nation’s new capital in Washington, DC, where it remains today. Once in DC, however, the Declaration was still continually transferred around to various buildings and homes.

In August 1814, when the British invaded Washington, DC, a clerk managed to save the document from destruction by removing it from the city and hiding it in Leesburg, VA.

In 1823, the document was further damaged when a “wetpressing process” was used to make a facsimile copy. The ink on the document continued to fade after the State Department in 1841 “grew tired of pulling the document out to show visitors” and instead put it on display across from a large window, where it was exposed to excessive sunlight for approximately 35 years.

In 1921, the Declaration was transferred to the Library of Congress, where enormous care was taken to protect the already damaged and worn document. In 1952, the Declaration was finally transferred to the National Archives, where it now safely resides in an “airtight thermopane container.”

Today, the Library of Congress, the National Archives and archival institutions around the country take great care to preserve our nation’s documentary history.

Over the course of the last decade, digitization has arisen as an additional means of preserving our nation’s history. Digitization provides yet another way for our nation to commit itself to preserving precious historic texts, so they can be celebrated and studied for years to come. Not only does digitization help preserve the original documents by reducing handling and potential damage, but is also creates a permanent digital file of the original and increases access to the historical documents by making the materials available online.

More of American (and world history, for that matter) is available online than ever before. But there is still much work to be done. This is why my non-profit ConSource has devoted itself to making sure that the documents comprising our nation’s constitutional history are freely available online for anyone to explore and learn from. It is an honor for us to work with archival institutions all over the country to help preserve and spotlight the precious historical documents they house in their physical locations. To view the ConSource digital library visit ConSource.org.


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