Before there could be a federal education library, there first had to be an education agency in the United States government. The Constitution was silent about education. Although the federal government did enact a number of measures to promote education, for the first three-quarters of a century of the country's existence, there was no agency in the federal government specifically concerned with education.
In 1867, Congress created an autonomous, non-Cabinet-level Department of Education. Lacking powers of compulsion, its purpose was to improve American education by providing educational information to the state and local education authorities. The Department was headed by a Commissioner, who was allotted a staff of three persons. Even in an age of small government and meager budgets, the Department of Education was a rather minuscule operation.
Despite the agency's small size and limited authority, the first United States Commissioner of Education, Henry Barnard, believed that the agency could bring about a vast improvement in American education by the dissemination of information. Schools in the states, as a result of Departmental efforts, would come to know, and thus be able to emulate the best educational practices. To aid in the provision of educational information, Barnard brought part of his extensive book collection to Washington.
Barnard firmly believed that the production of scholarly reports on educational history and the condition of education in foreign countries was essential for understanding the contemporary condition of American education. Many members of Congress did not appreciate this academic approach and soon began to attack the Department as a waste of money. The annual appropriations act approved by Congress on July 20, 1868 reduced funding for the education agency and stated that after June 30, 1869, it would lose its independent status and become the Office of Education within the Department of the Interior (where it would remain until 1939). In 1870, the education agency began to be called the Bureau of Education. (The name Office of Education would return in 1929.)
A disheartened Henry Barnard resigned on March 15, 1870 and was immediately replaced as Commissioner by John Eaton. Eaton had been an assistant commissioner of the Freedman's Bureau and superintendent of schools in the Reconstruction government in Tennessee. When Eaton entered office, Barnard's books were still in the Bureau's building, but they remained Barnard's personal property. In his first annual report, Eaton described Barnard's collection as "the most complete in the country" in education, which "should unquestionably be purchased by the government for permanent use of the office." The Bureau went on to purchase Barnard's collection, paying him in small amounts from year to year as warranted by the funds available.
Barnard's collection provided a nucleus for the library, which would expand to over 18,000 books and 47,000 pamphlets when Eaton left office in 1886. As early as 1873, Eaton would write that the Bureau's library had become the "most valuable pedagogic library in the country."
The maximum annual amount of money Congress appropriated for books during Eaton's tenure was $1,000 and the sum was usually $500. Many items, however, were acquired without the expenditure of funds. Numerous reports, pamphlets, and catalogues were given to the library or exchanged for Bureau of Education publications.
The collection centered on education reports and treatises that were vital for the functioning of the Bureau. But the library also acquired books tangentially related to education that were deemed helpful to the staff. These included biographies, local histories, travelogues, general histories, "works of eminent men who had specially thought or written or spoken on the subject of education," and general magazines and newspapers. Since Eaton, like many eminent educators, looked upon education as the fundamental means of improving society, he included in the library books dealing with social conditions: sanitation, crime, labor, poverty.
Although books were purchased according to the needs of the staff, Eaton looked upon the library as serving a depository function for educational works. In his view, the library "should not be considered complete until it contains everything printed on the subject of education."
To inform the general public, Eaton created a museum of educational appliances--desks, teaching aids, etc.--to go along with the library. As he wrote in his 1873 report, "a visitor may now obtain from the library and museum together information, the acquisition of which might otherwise involve extensive travel."
During the nineteenth century, there was little suitable space for the library. The library rooms were almost always used for the general clerical activities of the Bureau. And the library had to be moved when the Bureau's offices shifted from one building to another. Originally, the Department of Education was in two rooms in a building on G Street, Northwest. Then from 1868 to 1876, the federal education agency occupied the Wright Building at 8th and "G" Sts., NW. In 1876-1877, the Bureau`s offices were at a rented building at 12th and Pennsylvania Ave., NW. And from 1877 until 1909, the Wright Building once again housed the offices of the Bureau.
While developing the library, Eaton repeatedly requested congressional funding for a librarian, but this was not forthcoming. Despite Congress's failure to provide special funding, Eaton named a member of the Bureau staff, Samuel R. Warren, to serve as the first librarian in 1878. Knowledgeable about library affairs, Warren had prepared the Bureau's 1876 report on libraries. Entitled Public Libraries in the United States of America: Their History, Condition, and Management, this lengthy report had been widely acclaimed by the general public as well as by the library community. As librarian, Warren developed a card catalog for the collection classified by authors and by subjects. Warren resigned in 1884 and was replaced by Henderson Presnell, who had been Warren's assistant since 1881. Presnell was not a librarian, but had been an educator in Tennessee.
Under Presnell the library was catalogued according to the decimal system of Melvil Dewey. Presnell continued as librarian until 1907, a period that largely corresponded with the commissionership of William Torrey Harris, who served from 1889 to 1906. Harris, noted in philosophy as well as education, showed a great interest in libraries. While he was superintendent of schools in St. Louis during the 1870s, Harris had developed a library classification system, which Melvil Dewey probably made use of in developing his decimal system. Harris, who maintained a close correspondence with Dewey, authorized the Bureau of Education to underwrite Dewey's promotion of the American Library Association's exhibit at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The exhibit included a 5,000 volume "popular library." By the end of the Presnell-Harris era in 1907, the library contained over 100,000 volumes.
By the latter part of the nineteenth century, outside observers were noting the value of the Bureau's library. In his Education in the United States: Its History from the Earliest Settlements, published in 1890, Richard G. Boone, a professor of pedagogy at Indiana University, referred to the library in his discussion of the Bureau of Education. Boone wrote: "In the prosecution of its official duties there has been collected an educational library, in size and richness unsurpassed in this country." An 1898 article in The School Journal described the Bureau's library as having a "pedagogical collection . . . unique in many respects, including some very rare and curious old books on the theory of education, and a number of text-books in vogue in the schools of this country in the eighteenth century, and in the early part of the present century. The collection of educational journals of the United States is very complete, and the catalogues of the various institutions of learning form a special and valuable section of the library."
It was during the last decade of the nineteenth century that the U.S. Congress formally recognized the Bureau of Education's library as a national resource. In a joint congressional resolution of 1892, the Bureau of Library collections along with those of other government agencies were declared to be open to public researchers.
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Last Modified: April 3, 2006 (jer)