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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Jefferson's Library and Books

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, July 17, 2011

Last week, I described how the sale of Thomas Jefferson’s Library to the United States Government in 1815 served as the basis for the new collection of the Library of Congress.  In 1814, the British had burned the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., and the original library collection had been completely destroyed.


Jefferson was paid $ 23,950 for the 6,487 volumes of his collection, which were transported from his home at Monticello to D.C. and placed in the renovated Capitol.


Fire plagued Jefferson’s book collection.  His first library had been inherited from his father, Peter Jefferson upon his death in 1757.  In 1770, a fire destroyed that book collection at his Shadwell home.


He immediately began to collect books for a new library, which included foreign publications from his time as Minister to France from 1784-89.


His library continued to grow, with gifts from friends, outright purchases from book dealers, and the inheritance of 650 books from his friend George Wythe in 1806.


His library, as it existed in 1815, was sold to the U.S. Government to become the Library of Congress.


Various catalogs of his libraries were given to the Library of Congress with the collections that were transported to Washington, D.C.


On Christmas Eve of 1851, a candle was accidentally left burning in the reading room of the Library of Congress, housed in the U.S. Capitol Building.  Fire again destroyed the Jefferson books, with 2/3 of his collection consumed by the fire.


In 1873, Congress approved the initial design of a new building for the Library of Congress.  Construction began on the Italian Renaissance fireproof library building in 1888.  It opened to the public on November 1, 1897.


With most of Jefferson’s actual library gone in the fire, the Library of Congress began a long search for catalogs and documentation as to the titles that had been part of his collection.


In 1942, E. Millicent Sowerby began work on a comprehensive annotated bibliography of the Jefferson collection, with the 5 volume set published between 1952 and 1959.


Today, it remains the basic work outlining the Jefferson Library, as work has continued to collect and replace volumes of the collection.


So this is the end of the Thomas Jefferson Library story?  No, the tale of a man and his books goes on for years following his death!


Following the sale of his large library in 1815, Jefferson started again to collect a library of books, be it smaller than before.  A catalog of its holdings showed a collection only 1/6 as large as that one at the Library of Congress.


Following Jefferson’s 1826 death, his remaining books were sold in 1829 at auction in Washington, D.C. to cover the debts of his Estate.


No records exist of that sale, but scholars at Monticello found a letter from Joseph and Ellen Wayles Coolidge, Jefferson’s granddaughter, outlining books that she would like to purchase from her grandfather’s Estate.


That information was combined with an 1880 article stating that the Coolidge Family had donated their library to Washington University in St. Louis.


Sure enough, 74 of their books could be documented as part of Jefferson’s retirement library, and remain today, part of the Washington University Library.


The announcement was made on President’s Day earlier this year, and researchers from around the world flocked to St. Louis to see the books that had been there for 131 years, unknown to be another part of the Jefferson Library.


Aristotle’s “Politica” is in the collection, and was likely one of the books that Jefferson was reading at the time of his death, July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and the same day John Adams died.


Numerous architectural books are part of the collection of 74, as well as Plutarch’s “Lives,” which contained notes tucked into the spine in Jefferson’s handwriting.


Who knows how many more of Jefferson’s books will emerge from collections in the years to come?