What’s the difference between the National Archives and the Library of Congress?

I co-wrote today’s post with Stephen Wesson at the Library of Congress. It is also posted on the Teaching with the Library of Congress blog.

In 10 words or less, it’s what we’ve got and how we got it.

But we’ll go on. Because we get asked this question a lot. Both of us do. And because both the National Archives and the Library of Congress provide excellent resources for teaching history, civics and government, the humanities, and more!

Let’s start with what we have in common: Making historical documents available to the public. The Library of Congress and the National Archives exist to preserve pieces of history and culture. As part of its mission to serve the U.S. Congress and the American people, a top priority of the Library is to “acquire, organize, preserve, secure and sustain for the present and future use of Congress and the nation a comprehensive record of American history.” The mission of the National Archives is to safeguard and preserve “the records of our Government, ensuring that the people can discover, use, and learn from this documentary heritage.” So we both store and protect documents, photographs, posters, moving images, audio, and more. And what’s really great is that we both make these accessible to the public. So you, your students, or anyone else can study what we have to understand the past.

But let’s get back to that key difference. What we have in our collections and holdings differs because of how it arrived through our doors. The National Archives, established in 1934, is the nation’s record keeper. By law, “permanently valuable” records of the federal government must come to the National Archives for safekeeping. So any record—be it a handwritten document, map, film reel, or email—created in the course of doing federal business, that falls into a category predetermined to be kept and preserved, is transferred to the National Archives when the agency or department that created it doesn’t need to refer to it any longer. Keeping only 1-3% of records the government produces still amounts to over ten billion records!

Meanwhile, the Library of Congress, established in 1800, is the world’s largest collection of knowledge and creativity, with treasures in 460 different languages that range from the Bay Psalm Book and European explorers’ maps to Thomas Edison’s films and the rough drafts of Langston Hughes. The Library takes in more than 10,000 objects a day, and they arrive in its in-box via a number of means. As the nation’s copyright repository, the Library receives two copies of every item registered for U.S. copyright. It also operates offices around the world to bring in and distribute materials from other countries. And many of the Library’s landmark objects and collections—such as the first map with the word “America,” and the papers of Abraham Lincoln—have been donated by individuals or groups, or purchased using donated funds. The Library is part of the legislative branch of the U.S. government, and the Archives is an independent federal agency within the executive branch.

Despite (and because of!) our differences, the Library and the National Archives are both great places to locate free primary sources in a wide variety of media for your classroom. Primary sources have a unique power to engage students, build their critical thinking skills, and help them create new understanding. You can find federal records like the Declaration of IndependenceVoting Record of the Constitutional Convention, the Homestead Act, a letter from a soldier to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt asking her to be his son’s godmother, or the Pentagon Papers online from the National Archives.

Print of the Declaration of Independence
This print of the Declaration of Independence comes from an 1823 engraving and is the most frequently reproduced version of the document. The original, exhibited at the National Archives, has faded badly—largely because of poor preservation techniques during the 19th century. Today, this priceless document is maintained under the most exacting archival conditions possible. (Print #3 of the Declaration of Independence, 1823. General Records of the Department of State. National Archives.)


At the Library of Congress website you can find Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, powerful photos from the Dust Bowl, and oral histories from survivors of slavery.

The “original Rough draught” of the Declaration of Independence shows the evolution of the text from the initial composition draft by Jefferson to the final text adopted by Congress on the morning of July 4, 1776. (Thomas Jefferson. Draft of Declaration of Independence, 1776. Manuscript. Manuscript Division (49). Library of Congress)


Both institutions make it easy to find the primary sources you need. The search engine at loc.gov and the online catalog at archives.gov let you search millions of online primary sources and narrow your search to find just the object you and your students need.

The education staffs at the National Archives and the Library both create education materials and teacher resources to help teachers unlock the potential of primary sources. The Teachers page on the Library of Congress website provides lesson plans and primary source sets, all searchable by content and Common Core State Standards, as well as online professional development and tools to help your students start analyzing primary sources right away.

The Teachers Resources page on the National Archives website includes information about visits and professional development, as well as a link to DocsTeach.org, the online tool for teaching with documents from the National Archives. On DocsTeach, you can locate primary sources, as well as find and create online learning activities using seven interactive tools in combination with documents, images, maps, charts, audio and video.

Do you already use primary sources and teaching resources from the Library of Congress or the National Archives? We hope the answer is both!

8 thoughts on “What’s the difference between the National Archives and the Library of Congress?

  1. Thank you Stephanie and Stephen for this fantastic post! The difference between these two important cultural institutions can be difficult to discern, but you did a great job explaining this in a simple way.

  2. Great article! I’m just wondering, since the Library of Congress has such a large scope, how do they decide what they do and don’t acquire? I’m also curious about why the Library has Lincoln’s papers, since the Archives has most presidential records.

  3. Thank you for inquiring about Lincoln’s papers. Presidential papers were the personal property of the president until the passage of the Presidential Records Act (PRA) in 1978 (except for President Nixon’s, whose were covered under the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974). The PRA changed the legal ownership of the official records of the President from private to public. The official records of the President and his staff are now owned by the United States, not by the President, and are turned over to the National Archives.

    You can read more about Presidential materials at http://www.archives.gov/presidential-libraries/research/types.html

  4. In response to your question about how the Library of Congress decides what to acquire, my colleague at the Library told me that they follow a number of rules when deciding which items to add. Of primary importance are any materials needed by Congress and federal government officials to do their jobs. The Library also looks for objects that record the life and achievement of the American people.

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