German-Language Treasures at the Library of Congress

By Dorothea S. Michelman

One of Washington D.C.’s most oft-visited cultural attractions — approximately I million visitors pass through its doors every year — is home to North America’s largest and most diverse collection of German language materials. In fact, our national library boasts the largest collection of German titles to be found outside the German-speaking world. And the “German connection” can be seen before you even step inside.

Although there are actually three Library buildings on Capitol Hill, it is the oldest of the trio — the Jefferson Building — which most visitors picture as Our Nation’s Library. Designed by architects John L. Smithmeyer, born in Austria, and Paul J. Pelz, of German heritage, it is an imposing Italian Renaissance-style edifice, both outside and within, where the visitor can marvel at the intricately magnificent mosaics in the Great Hall, created by German craftsmen.

Today’s illustrious collection of knowledge looks back on a humble beginning. At its inception in 1800, it was a modest library of 3,000 volumes focusing on the fields of history, jurisprudence, and literature. Yet its very existence was a small miracle. The common assumption in the early days of the Republic was that elected representatives had no need of a library at all. So, with the Congress’s allocation of $5,000 for that purpose, those first Library patrons could and did consider themselves quite fortunate.

During the War of 1812, the Congressional Library, then located in the Capitol building, was burned down by British soldiers. Thomas Jefferson came to the rescue, although his motives were not entirely altruistic. Burdened by debt, Jefferson sold 6,487 books from his own collection, painstakingly acquired over the space of 50 years. These volumes formed the cornerstone of what would one day be the world’s largest library.

The Jefferson Building was completed in 1896 and opened in 1897. Two more buildings would follow: the Adams Building in 1939 and the Madison Building in 1980.

Today’s Library of Congress comprises around 126 million items, including 20 million books in 460 languages and dialects, 12 million photos, 4.9 million maps, 5 million musical works and related materials, and 56 million manuscripts.

With 3 million volumes and 30,000 new acquisitions each year, the Library’s German Collections are second only to those in English. These priceless treasures include witnesses to the history of the Germanic tribes, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the great period of immigration during the 19th century as well as more recent events taking place in modern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

David Morris, German Area Specialist in the European Division, emphasizes the particularly strong representation of materials from the period of the waves of German immigration in the 19th century. A superb example: the 24,500 papers of German-born Carl Schurz (1827-1906), a leading figure in 19th-century America whose gifts to his adopted country ranged from contributions as pioneering journalist and reformer to Senator and Secretary of the Interior.

For Morris, whose responsibilities include development and maintenance of the German Collections as well as purchase of new materials for the Library, the real challenge lies in the fact that a new book appears in Germany — in one form or another — every seven minutes. And this brings forth new questions and challenges, chief among them how to collect and store these materials.

The German Collections include 5,700 incunabula, the largest collection in the northern hemisphere. Other incalculably precious holdings are one of three known perfect copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the Great Bible of Mainz, and Martin Waldseemüller’s Cosmographiae Iintroducio, a 1307 map on which “America” appears for the first time. The renowned Otto Vollbehr Collection has enriched the Library of Congress by 3,000 incunabula and the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection has added 2,600 illustrated books from the 15th through the 20th centuries. Here, too, you will find the largest Sigmund Freud collection outside of Vienna: 80,000 manuscripts of books and articles.

For music lovers, again only Vienna has a larger collection of Johannes Brahms manuscripts and related holdings. And that’s just a small sampling of the immense treasures behind the doors of the one-of-a-kind library — our Library of Congress.

Further information on the German Collections is available at:

The Library of Congress is located at 101 Independence Ave. S.E., Washington, D.C. 20540-4830; Tel.202-707-5414; Fax.202-707-8482; E mail European Collections: Library of Congress Calendar

Directions to Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is located on Capitol Hill in southeast Washington, D.C. It comprises three buildings that are adjacent to each other:

  • Thomas Jefferson Building, located across the street from the U.S. Capitol
  • James Madison Building, 101 Independence Ave, SE
  • John Adams Building, 2nd St, SE

Because of very limited on-street parking, we recommend Metro transportation as the easiest way to reach FRD offices. For driving directions, see

By Subway (Metro):

The two closest metro stops to the Library are:

  • Capitol South—ORANGE and BLUE lines
  • Union Station—RED line

The closest of these is Capitol South, which is located diagonally across the street from the James Madison Building. Upon exiting the Capitol South station, half a block uphill to the corner of 1st and C Sts, SE is the James Madison Building. Across Independence Ave, SE on1st St, SE is the Thomas Jefferson Building. Directly behind the Thomas Jefferson Building on 2nd St, SE is the John Adams Building. The only public entrance to the John Adams Building is on 2nd St, SE.

Upon exiting Union Station, walk south on 1st St, NE towards the U.S. Capitol. This route will take you past the Russell and Dirksen Senate office buildings and the U.S. Supreme Court before you reach the Thomas Jefferson building on the left (east) side of 1st St, SE. This walk will take approximately fifteen minutes. The John Adams Building is on the left side, across the 2nd St, right behind the Thomas Jefferson Building.