Siblings, But Not Twins: Researching at the National Archives and the Library of Congress

We’re wrapping up American Archives Month. Today’s post comes from Callie Belback from the National Archives History Office.

Say you want to explore the history of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase using primary sources. Where do you go? Well, you could start by exploring the National Archives Catalog or the Library of Congress Catalog. Both of these institutions are responsible for making historical documents available to the public. However, the collections and missions of each institution are very different. 

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), part of the executive branch, holds the documents and materials that are created in the course of business conducted by the United States federal government. This includes records from the executive (including Presidential Libraries for the last 15 Presidents), legislative, and judicial branches. One to 3 percent of federal documents are considered important enough for legal or historical purposes to be kept permanently. 

However, keeping 1 to 3 percent of federal records still amounts to roughly 13.5 billion pages of textual documents, 10 million maps, charts, and architectural and engineering drawings as well as tens of millions photographs, digital images, graphics, and aerial photographs. And this does not include the hundreds of thousands of motion picture film, video, and sound recordings or the 835 terabytes of electronic data. 

All of these materials are preserved and made available because they are important to understand the U.S. Government, to provide value the nation’s citizens, and to protect American democracy. The vast majority of the records held at NARA are “unclassified,” which means that they are available to any person. This furthers the agency’s mission to provide public access to high-value government records in order to foster a strong American democracy.  

On the other hand, the Library of Congress, part of the legislative branch, is responsible for preserving access to any record that is important to knowledge and creativity. So what does it hold? The Library has a collection of more than 173 million items, including 51 million cataloged books and other print materials, 75 million manuscripts, 8.2 million items of sheet music, 5.6 million maps, and much more. The Library of Congress works to acquire, organize, maintain, secure, preserve, and provide access to all of these documents. 

In addition, the Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service provides objective and authoritative research and analysis to help inform legislative debate. The Library of Congress’s U.S. Copyright Office administers the nation’s copyright laws for the advancement of the public good. With all of these services in mind, the mission of the Library of Congress is to engage, inspire, and inform both Congress and the American people with a universal and enduring source of knowledge and creativity. Like the public library in your neighborhood, the Library of Congress is responsible for providing open access to information on any topic. 

So, for example, you can find documents relating to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, or the nation’s founding at the National Archives. This is because all these items were generated in the course of government business. You can find items such as The Gutenberg Bible, a 5-foot by 7-foot book featuring color images of Bhutan, and legal declarations by 16th-century Spanish kings at the Library of Congress. This is because each one of these items are important to world knowledge and creativity. 

The National Archives and the Library of Congress are invaluable places for conducting historical research. Their service to the public encourages understanding, intellectual curiosity, and innovation and imagination, thus strengthening American democracy.

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