On this day in history, in 1851, a huge fire swept through the Library of Congress, consuming more than two-thirds of its volumes, including much of Thomas Jefferson’s personal collection. Which was more than a bit ironic, because Jefferson had sold* the LOC his books after British troops burned the Capitol Building, then the Library’s home, during the War of 1812.

Jefferson left his fingerprints all over the LOC. And not just because he ignored the archivists who asked him to wear white cotton gloves when handling the delicate manuscripts. (“Okay already. You’re the ‘Sage of Monticello.’ Whatever. Try not to smudge that copy of the Gutenberg Bible.”**) But also because his vision for the Library defined it in its early years.

Congress created the Library in 1800, at the tail end of John Adams’s presidency. But it wasn’t until 1802, when Jefferson signed the law clarifying the LOC’s purview, that it began to approximate the republic’s national library. This role was precisely what Jefferson envisioned. For in addition to believing in the power of knowledge, he, like many of his contemporaries, had an inferiority complex when it came to comparing the young republic to the nations of the Old World.

Sure, the U.S. had lumbering beasts like the bison, towering mountain ranges like the Rockies, and vast rivers like the Mississippi, all of which dwarfed their continental competitors. But where were America’s soaring cathedrals, its galleries of exquisite national art, its repositories of domestic literature? Where, in other words, was its history and culture? Cue the librarians.

The LOC recovered from the 1851 fire relatively quickly. But then it languished until after the Civil War. Starting in 1865, though, under Ainsworth Spofford,*** Jefferson’s vision for the LOC came into focus. The Library expanded its collections — including acquiring the holdings of the Smithsonian — and then moved into a new building in 1897. By 1900, it owned more than 1 million volumes. Today, the LOC is the largest library in the world****; it needs three buildings to hold its collection of 54 million manuscripts, 18 million books, 12 million photographs, 4.5 million maps, and 2.5 million audio recordings.

The only problem is that it’s still being run by firebugs.

* When you’re a former president, you really should find the generosity somewhere in your heart to, you know, donate your books to a non-profit federal institution.

** I know, I know, the LOC didn’t buy its copy of the Gutenberg Bible until 1930. If it’s restaurant-quality “facts” you want, I suggest starting your own blog

*** History’s coolest librarian. Until Mr. Giles, that is.

**** How d’ya like us now, Europe.