To Thomas: Happy Birthday. From: Your Library.

Tomorrow we’re having a party. Maybe you’ve heard.

The Library of Congress is throwing open its bronze doors to the public for the first time since 1990 to celebrate the new Library of Congress Experience, a project for which I have run out of superlatives, so I will leave the descriptions to sources of less bias. (Those doors, entering directly into the spectacular Great Hall, will now be the main entrance to the Thomas Jefferson Building from the outside.)

We are celebrating Congress’s Library—everything that Congress has done to sustain this institution for 208 years, including not just financial support, but also the decision by the Congress to make the Library of Congress the nation’s copyright repository.

But there was also a singular act of Congress dating back nearly 200 years, a matter of some controversy at the time, that would forever change the course of the Library of Congress and our collecting philosophy. That is to say, after the British used the contents of the original Library to burn the Capitol in 1814, Congress the following year purchased the 6,487-volume personal library of Thomas Jefferson, which “recommenced” the Library and helped establish the “universal” nature of our collections.

This Sunday is Jefferson’s 265th birthday, but tomorrow his original Library goes back on display in stunning fashion in the building that bears his name, one important aspect of an Experience our visitors will never forget.

The Washington Post today ran a great story (front page!) about Thomas Jefferson’s library, and our own staff newsletter, The Library of Congress Gazette, examined the story behind Thomas Jefferson’s library in even greater detail, which I have reproduced in full after the jump, led by our crackerjack editor, Gail Fineberg.

One aspect of the story I’d like to underscore because of the viral nature of the Web: The Library, in a project funded by Jerry and Gene Jones, has spent several years reconstructing Jefferson’s library, roughly two-thirds of which perished in 1851 in yet another fire. We need to replace only about 300 of the 6,487 original titles, so insofar as this can be considered a plea to the rare-book blogosphere, well, that’s on the table.

Library Reconstructs, Displays Thomas Jefferson’s Library
by Gail Fineberg

Scholarly detectives, after 10 years of quiet sleuthing deep in the Library’s stacks and the international rare-book market, have matched more than 4,000 volumes that were missing from Thomas Jefferson’s library after a U.S. Capitol fire destroyed nearly two-thirds of his books 157 years ago.

Of the original 6,487 volumes that Jefferson had sold to Congress in 1815, only about 2,000 remained following the fire that started from a faulty chimney flue on a frigid Christmas Eve morning, at 7:30 a.m., Dec. 24, 1851, and spread through the congressional library housed in the Capitol.

These original 2,000 books, plus the replacement copies, now constitute a permanent Southwest Gallery display of “Thomas Jefferson’s Library,” adjacent to the new exhibition “Creating the United States.” These and several other special exhibitions open with the new Library of Congress Experience at noon, Saturday, April 12, in the Thomas Jefferson Building.

During the past 10 years, Mark Dimunation, chief of the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division, and his staff have assembled all but about 300 titles that were in Jefferson’s original library.

Describing the historical significance of Jefferson’s complete collection, which he has come to know intimately during his immersion in the reconstruction project, Dimunation said in a recent speech:

“This was the collection that had nursed the Declaration of Independence, that had guided early American diplomacy, that had fueled innovations in American technology, and that assisted a Virginia planter. And now [with Congress’s purchase of Jefferson’s books in 1815] this collection, built around Jefferson’s notion of universal knowledge, was to serve as the source of inspiration and ideas for the new republic.”

Collection Forged by Fire

“The nucleus of the Library of Congress was forged in fire,” Dimunation said in his retelling of the Jefferson library story, a story that begins with a 1770 fire that burned Jefferson’s family home in Shadwell, Va., and consumed most of his first library consisting of some 200 volumes, including his law books and 40 books he had inherited from his father.

Jefferson’s appetite for books grew well beyond replacement of his loss. Buying from booksellers in Philadelphia, Annapolis, Williamsburg and abroad, he had acquired 1,250 titles by 1773. “When he departed the following year for Europe, he looked forward to greatly expanding his library, and, whenever he was not carrying out his duties as the American minister to France, he haunted the Parisian bookstalls and placed frequent orders with dealers in London and Europe,” Dimunation said.

By the time he returned to America in 1789, Jefferson had more than doubled the size of his library, and he had “considerable debt to prove it,” Dimunation said. By 1815, his collection had grown to 6,487 volumes.

While Jefferson took great pride in the extent of his library, he was most pleased that his selections reflected care and erudition,” Dimunation said. “His love of books and bibliography, his travels and his worldly learnedness, and his ample (though sometimes shaky) means provided him the unique opportunity to build a private library that was truly unrivaled in America.”

Jefferson was not interested in a bibliophilic collection. “He was not buying first editions, the best editions, or the best copies,” Dimunation said. “He wanted working texts, ordinary books for the 18th century. He was not building a gentleman’s library for show. He was building a scholar’s library to meet his needs as a philosopher, statesman, diplomat, scientist, planter, architect, musician and scholar.”

He read and collected, in their original languages, Greek and Latin classics, books of contemporary 18th-century European philosophers and thinkers who influenced his thoughts on the rights of man, books on politics, law and history, books on art, architecture and music, books and pamphlets on all branches of science.

“He truly is the American enlightenment,” Dimunation said. “He embodied the philosophy of the entire 18th century. He believed concerted rational thought focused on a problem would produce a reasonable solution. He studied the classics in order to construct his understanding of democracy and the republic in very much the same way he would approach a problem with his crops or a scientific question.”

Although he was physically far removed from 18th-century Europe, Jefferson was connected by his library to the revolutionary new ideas that were brewing abroad. “One reason he built an enormous library was his need to feel at the center of the conversation, even though he was remote from it,” Dimunation said.

Books fed not only his theoretical, intellectual life but also served his daily needs for information—how to brew beer, how to mill lumber, how to keep accounts, bee-keeping, planting experiments, discussions of the soil,” Dimunation said.

As much as he treasured his personal library, Jefferson offered it to Congress on Sept. 21,1814, to “recommence” the Library of Congress, which had burned one month earlier in the U.S. Capitol that the British had torched on Aug. 24, 1814. In retirement in Monticello, he wrote the Library Committee of Congress a letter in which he described the history of his collection:

“I have been fifty years making it, and have spared no pains, opportunity or expenses, to make it what it is.” Commending the breadth and depth of his library, particularly in the sciences, and its usefulness to Congress, he argued: “…. there is, in fact, no subject to which a member may not have occasion to refer.”

By a vote of 71 to 61 on Jan. 16, 1815, the House of Representatives voted to approve the purchase of Jefferson’s library for $23,950 (the amount proposed by a Georgetown bookseller to the Joint Library Committee), but not without debate.

The Annals of Congress (28:1105-06) reported that “those who opposed the bill did so on account of the scarcity of money and the necessity of appropriating it to purposes more indispensable than the purchase of a library; the probable insecurity of such a library placed here: the high price to be given for this collection; its miscellaneous and almost exclusively literary (instead of legal and historical) character, etc. …

“To those arguments, enforced with zeal and vehemence, the friends of the bill replied with fact, wit, and argument, to show that the purchase, to be made on terms of long credit, could not affect the present resources of the United States; that the price was moderate, the library more valuable from the scarcity of many of its books, and altogether a most admirable substratum for a National Library.”
President James Madison, to whom Jefferson had shipped crates of books from Europe, approved the purchase on Jan. 30, 1815.

The following May, horse-drawn wagons following two alternate routes from Monticello to Washington transported the books. Each was wrapped in paper and reshelved in order in Jefferson’s old pine bookcases that were nailed shut for the journey.

With its new foundation, the Library of Congress resided in Capitol space until the disastrous 1851 Christmas Eve fire destroyed 55,000 volumes, including two-thirds of Jefferson’s library.

Bicentennial Revives Library

In preparation for the Library’s bicentennial celebration in 2000, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington promoted the idea of reconstructing and displaying Jefferson’s library. Dimunation and his staff sifted through various Library collections and assembled some 3,000 volumes that matched descriptions of Jefferson’s books contained in an annotated five-volume bibliography of Jefferson’ original library, which E. Millicent Sowerby compiled over eight years of research and the Library published in 1952.

On display throughout the bicentennial year, 2000-01, Jefferson’s reconstructed library included these books, plus missing volumes acquired as gifts over the years and several hundred items purchased with a generous gift bestowed on the Library for the reconstruction project by James Madison Council members Jerry and Gene Jones.

Since then, we have made good progress,” Dimunation said. “From the original desiderata of 1,012 items, the list has been reduced to fewer than 300 items outstanding. The remaining titles are sought out on the antiquarian market.

“This is a complicated and ambitious project, one that is subject to the whims of the antiquarian book market and to the parameters of Jefferson’s universal approach to collecting,” Dimunation said. “We are seeking the scarce as well as the common, the arcane as well as the mundane, and in nine different languages from three centuries published in all corners of Europe and the New Republic.”

To keep suppliers from bidding up prices of books desired by the Library, Dimunation ordered Americana replacement copies largely through a single rare-book dealer.

Dan De Simone, curator of the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection at the Library, visited booksellers in three different countries in 2006 and purchased 130 items. These titles range from a folio of John Blair’s “The Chronology and History of the World, from the Creation to the Year of Christ” (London, 1754) to Edmond Hoyle’s short treatises on the games of whist, quadrille, piquet and bac-gammon (London, 1745-46) and an eight-volume treatise “concerning the manner of fallowing of ground, raising of grass seeds & training of lint & hemp for the increase & improvement of the linen manufacturers of Edinburgh.”

Throughout the project, Dimunation and De Simone relied on Sowerby’s painstaking scholarship and detective work, which Dimunation describes as “the greatest bibliography of the 20th century.” She used a “much worked over holograph draft” based on Jefferson’s holograph catalog of his collection, which had disappeared in the 19th century, and a catalog that was printed for Congress after the volumes arrived in Washington in 1815. Sowerby consulted Jefferson’s manuscript writings and correspondence to annotate her work.

Memory, Reason and Imagination

In arranging Jefferson’s library for display in tall wood-and-glass cases that encircle pavilion visitors, Dimunation has preserved Jefferson’s original library-organization scheme, which Jefferson described as “sometimes analytical, sometimes chronological, and sometimes a combination of both.”

Following a modified version of Francis Bacon’s organization of knowledge, Jefferson grouped his books into three main categories—“History” (Memory), “Philosophy” (Reason) and “Fine Arts” (Imagination). He further subdivided these categories into 44 “chapters.” For example, the broad category of History contains Ancient History and American History, as well as History–Natural, which includes Agriculture, Surgery and Mineralogy.

The Library of Congress has classified and organized its entire collection—now grown to more than 138 million items on 650 miles of bookshelves— according to Jefferson’s plan.

The Rare Book and Special Collections Division, which has preserved Jefferson’s own books sitting neatly on iron shelves in a cool, dry, dim environment, became a staging area this month for assembling the permanent display. Like a choir director blending voices, Dimunation has been loading the original books onto carts and wheeling them from the stacks into the reading room. From other carts he added in the new acquisitions, the matching copies found in other Library collections, and book boxes indicating missing volumes—all according to Jefferson’s master organization plan.

Then the carts were wheeled in order through the neighboring Hispanic and European reading rooms to the Southwest Pavilion, where Dimunation, De Simone and other staff placed the volumes in order in display cases that will conserve them in cool, dry conditions.

Viewers can spot Jefferson’s original books by the green ribbons inserted in the books. Gold ribbons signify new purchases and no ribbons indicate volumes from the Library’s collections. Book boxes printed with the author’s names and titles indicate missing volumes.

Thomas Jefferson’s Library will remain a working collection. Researchers wanting to use it may order books that will be retrieved from the display and served in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division Reading Room. “The Jefferson collection is the fourth most widely used collection in our division,” Dimunation said.

Surrounded by Jefferson’s old books and aided by new technologies, 21st-century viewers can immerse themselves in Thomas Jefferson’s mind and his 18th-century world that produced a new experiment in self-governance, an experiment he understood could succeed only if enlightenment prevailed over ignorance.


  1. Jennifer
    April 16, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    WOW. A few Preservation staff members and I went over to check things out this morning – the multi-screen video archways are INCREDIBLE!!! We were SO impressed, they did a fantastic job with that. Really, it makes me even more proud to work here. Great work.

  2. Aoleon
    April 17, 2008 at 9:16 am

    I think the rare books collection is especially great – including the Jefferson collection. Getting into the mind of a great thinker like Thomas Jefferson is an incredible service to everyone who takes the time to read and learn.

  3. Henrik Holmegaard
    May 7, 2008 at 8:00 am

    First, congratulations are certainly in order.

    Second, one would wish that the Library of Congress published the collection as holographic hypermedia for world wide reference in order for students writing assignments and scholars writing articles to be able to cite using the international character set ISO-IEC 10646 for coding text and the intelligent composition model for composing type according to the classic eighteenth century conventions that can be studied in the collection. Note that classic eighteenth century composition is supported at system level in present operating system products for saving into searchable softcopy.

    With best wishes,

    Henrik Holmegaard
    technical writer, mag.scient.soc.

  4. Matthew Mason
    July 15, 2008 at 2:13 am

    What are the chapters and subchapters of Jefferson’s Library? I have a rather large collection (1000+) of books that are rather disorganized. If this method is good enough for Bacon and Jefferson it is good enough for me!

  5. Matthew Mason
    July 15, 2008 at 2:14 am

    Oh and by-the-by, I just returned from D.C and was appropriately impressed with the Library.

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