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A Jefferson Book, Rediscovered in Law Library

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Anna Bryan holds the book she discovered in the Law Library's rare-book collections. Photo by Amanda Reynolds.
Anna Bryan holds the book she discovered in the Law Library’s rare-book collections. Photo by Amanda Reynolds.

A tiny, handwritten “T” at the bottom of page 113 offered a clue that this book – long part of the Law Library collections – needed a new home: the permanent exhibition of Thomas Jefferson’s library.

Every four months, Anna Bryan and other catalogers in the U.S./Anglo Division’s Rare Materials Section work on an ongoing Law Library project involving American and English law treatises.

While cataloging for that project in August, Bryan picked up an 18th-century volume by John Freeman, Baron Redesdale, “A Treatise on the Pleadings in Suits in the Court of Chancery, by English Bill.”

Examining the leaves, Bryan noticed the markings on page 113: the handwritten “T” next to a printed “I.”

She had seen it before, cataloging books in the “Thomas Jefferson’s Library” exhibition. Jefferson often identified his books by writing his first initial next to the printed “I” signature, which, for printers, also doubled as the letter “J.”

She didn’t, however, expect to find Jefferson’s mark in a Law Library volume.

“I thought, ‘What the heck? I really do need that vacation – now I’m seeing things,’ ” Bryan said.

She wasn’t.

Bryan consulted E. Millicent Sowerby’s annotated bibliography of Jefferson’s library – considered the definitive work – and confirmed her suspicions. She had found one of the original 6,487 volumes Jefferson sold to the Library of Congress in 1815 – books that form the foundation of the modern Library.

Sowerby listed the Redesdale book as No. 1,738 – with a hitch: “The Library of Congress copy, probably Jefferson’s, disappeared sometime ago and cannot be located,” she wrote.

The “disappearance” was, in part, just a reflection of the way Jefferson’s books were viewed in the decades following the purchase of the library.

The Library didn’t gather the volumes in a single collection or even track them as “Jefferson books” for quite some time. The books, after all, were acquired not as historical artifacts but as reference works for everyday use.

“The library was not purchased as a monument to Mr. Jefferson,” Bryan said. “It was purchased for use by Congress in doing its job of legislating.”

Following the invention of the card-catalogue system in the late 19th century, the Library began producing cards for the books in its collections – including cards for Jefferson’s books.

Thomas Jefferson placed his characteristic, handwritten “T” initial at the bottom of page 113. Photo by Amanda Reynolds.

The original card for the Redesdale volume, created in May 1919, bears no hint that it once belonged to Jefferson.

That’s not unusual, Bryan said. She estimated that 25 percent of the original cards for books in the Jefferson collection don’t indicate that the volumes once belonged to the third president – again reflecting the perception of his books as a working library.

As decades passed, that view changed. Today, researchers regularly use Jefferson’s books, but their historical importance now is fully recognized, too.

Part of Sowerby’s project in the 1950s was to “rediscover” Jefferson’s books as historical objects. Later, the Library decided to reconstruct Jefferson’s library, gathering all of its Jefferson books in one place and acquiring identical editions of his books destroyed by fire in 1851.

That exhibition opened in 2000, and, now, the Library can add one more volume to it.

“This is just one more example of the great puzzle the project to reconstruct Jefferson’s collections has proved to be,” said Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. “Even though we have been at this for more than 16 years, we are still bumping into unexpected treasures such as Baron Redesdale’s work. And it is certainly no surprise that Anna would be the one to uncover the item. She has evolved into a tremendous sleuth for the project.”

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