Exhibit explores how Americans work together for a cause

The United States of America is a nation of volunteers, and a new exhibition at the Library of Congress highlights 45 of its volunteer organizations.

Join In: Voluntary Associations in America” dives into the tradition of ordinary people working together to help the less fortunate, tackle emergencies and build communities. “Volunteering and banding together for a common purpose is baked into our DNA as Americans as we engage with many different types of organizations to confront some of our great challenges,” Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said.

Pamphlets on table (Shawn Miller/Library of Congress)
Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” notes the relationship between Americans’ habits of forming associations and their democracy. (Shawn Miller/Library of Congress)

In Democracy in America, French philosopher and diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville — whose writing inspired the exhibit, according to curator Nathan Dorn — observes that civic participation is foundational to U.S. democracy.

“Volunteering and national service are cornerstones of democratic participation and civility in American society,” says AmeriCorps (PDF, 233KB), a federal agency that organizes domestic volunteering opportunities.

Dorn estimates there are more than a million charities in the United States. Some 61 million Americans 16 and older, or 23% of that population, volunteered for an organization or an association at the height of the pandemic, according to AmeriCorps and the U.S. Census Bureau. During the same period, 51% of adults informally helped their neighbors.

Glass enclosure of books with image of Benjamin Franklin on board and explanation of exhibit (Shawn Miller/Library of Congress)
Benjamin Franklin organized volunteers in Pennsylvania, forming the Union Fire Company, the Library Company of Philadelphia and what is now the University of Pennsylvania. (Shawn Miller/Library of Congress)

Voluntary organizations have been part of the America fabric since before it was a country. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin established a volunteer firefighting company in 1736 in Philadelphia, shortly after Great Britain sent firefighting equipment to the British colonies. The resulting Union Fire Company was the precursor to today’s firefighters, 75% of whom are volunteers, Dorn says.

Historically, when Americans have seen injustice, they often have attacked it with voluntary associations, Dorn says. The American Anti-Slavery Society — founded in 1833 by 60 abolitionist leaders, including newspaper publisher and social reformer William Lloyd Garrison — pushed to emancipate enslaved people in part by publishing a monthly pamphlet for children, sponsoring lectures and supporting boycotts of cotton and other products produced by enslaved people. (The society dissolved five years after Congress ratified the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.)

Parade float of Rotary International logo made of flower petals (Library of Congress)
Rotary International, represented here at the 2013 Rose Parade in California, focuses on the world’s most persistent problems. (Library of Congress)

When Paul Harris launched the Rotary Club of Chicago in 1905, his goal was connecting professionals from various backgrounds so they could form lifelong friendships and exchange ideas.

Today, Rotary International has morphed into a massive humanitarian organization of 1.4 million people around the world working on causes that include protecting the environment, fighting disease, growing local economies and supporting Ukrainian refugees.

Historical photograph of woman ringing bell and collecting coins in bucket (Shawn Miller/Library of Congress)
The Salvation Army opened its first U.S. branch in 1880 to fight poverty and promote the Gospel. Today, it operates in more than 130 countries. (Shawn Miller/Library of Congress)

The Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project is staffed by volunteers from tribes from the Wampanoag Nation working to reconstruct their language, spoken more than a century ago in areas of eastern Massachusetts. The project, founded by linguist Jessie Little Doe Baird in 1993, teaches children in an immersive school and offers classes for the Wampanoag community. The language has survived in written form in documents and a 360-year-old Bible that Puritan missionary John Eliot published.

U.S. volunteer organizations have created schools and hospitals, launched charities for orphans, sold home-baked goods to raise money for schools and held blood drives. They have made America a better place for marginalized groups by advancing their civil rights, at times even influencing legislation.

“People have the ability in this country to get together to pursue any goal,” Dorn said. “The possibilities are endless.”