Thomas Jefferson’s Amazing Library

While I was visiting Washington D.C., one of  the highlights of my time was spending the afternoon at the Library of Congress, an elegant, imposing building with architecture based on the Opera House of Paris.  The interior is simply breathtaking—every kind of artwork you can imagine is on display—you hardly know where to look, as there is such an embarrassment of riches.

In 1800, the small city of Washington had no library, since Congress had previously met in Philadelphia and New York. The Library of Congress was started with a small sum allocated to buy reference books.  Following the War of 1812, when those reference books were destroyed by the British, Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his personal library of 6,487 books, at that time the largest number owned by one person in America.   After much arguing and debate, Congress agreed to pay Jefferson $23,950 for this collection.   One Federalist opponent, Cyrus King, argued that he was afraid Jefferson’s books would spread his “infidel philosophy” and worried that many of them were  “in many languages which many cannot read and ought not.” (Nothing changes, does it?)

Another fire in 1851 destroyed 35,000 volumes, including nearly two-thirds of the books given by Jefferson.  Even though Congress allocated funding for the  replacement of the Library of Congress books, restoring the books from Jefferson’s library were not a priority at that time.  Fast forward to 1998: Mark Dimunation, the Chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division for the Library of Congress, started a slow but sure search for the 4,324 Jefferson titles destroyed in 1851.

The Jefferson Collection Exhibition, now on view at the Library of Congress, has been open to the public since 2000, the result of years of research and acquisition.  Originally, this was referred to as the “Jefferson Project,” with staffers trying to keep the whole thing as secret as possible so potential sellers would not raise the prices of the books.  Starting with the Library of Congress itself, 2,000 books were initially found, then 2,000 more were found at book dealers, auction houses and even libraries.  The remaining 250 or so have been impossible to locate.  Jefferson’s tastes were eclectic, and not everyone needs or particularly wants obscure books or pamphlets on certain subjects, or, as Dimunation says, “Jefferson is a fairly specific kind of scholar and reader, and he has books that range the level of  obscurity…very difficult to locate in the market.”

Jefferson's Beribboned Books (

Jefferson’s Beribboned Books (

In 1959, a library employee, Millicent Sowerby, compiled a five-volume catalog of Jefferson’s  original library, which proved invaluable to Dimunation in his search for the missing books.  Sowerby’s work is considered the definitive source, as she had not only pored over  historical records, noting which titles Jefferson used, she also went through his personal papers and made note of anything he mentioned referring to or reading.  Can you imagine the work this involved?  Such dedication.

The exhibit is circular, giving the viewer an idea of just how vast Jefferson’s library really was.  His original library was also circular, as he believed it aided him in getting quickly to the books he needed. There are all shapes and sizes, of course, and many of the  displayed books have colored ribbons sticking out the top—green ribbons designate those owned by Jefferson, and yellow ones are replacements.  Books that have no ribbon displayed belong to the Library of Congress.  Dimunation says:  “Our objective is to put on the shelf exactly the same  book Jefferson would have owned.  Not another edition, not the same work but printed later.  The exact book that he would have owned.”

The circular exhibit of Thomas Jefferson's Library (

The circular exhibit of Thomas Jefferson’s Library (

All his life, Jefferson collected books on many different topics and in many different languages.  He used his own system of organization, following somewhat a system developed by British philosopher Francis Bacon.  Bacon’s categories, Memory, Reason, and Imagination, were changed by Jefferson to History, Philosophy, and Fine Arts, and then subdivided into an additional forty-four chapters. What an incredible intellect this man must have had—to collect the largest number of books in the entire country and on such diverse subjects as Plato and pomegranate trees!  It boggles the mind.

Thomas Jefferson, the State Room Portrait, by Charles Wilson Peale (Wikimedia)

Thomas Jefferson, the State Room Portrait, by Charles Wilson Peale (Wikimedia)

Jefferson believed that books should be read and used, not just collected to sit on a shelf, pristine and unopened.  He often marked in his books, not just to identify them as his, but also to make comments and to refer to other titles—one architectural volume has calculations he made in the margins!  Jefferson will surely be remembered for many outstanding achievements during his lifetime, but for book lovers everywhere, we will treasure his legacy of reading and of amassing his amazing library.  Jefferson continues to declare his love for books, as stitched onto needlepoint pillows and bookmarks all over the world:

I cannot live without books.



Why do you think it’s important for the Library of Congress to have spent so much time and money to restore Jefferson’s original library?




6 thoughts on “Thomas Jefferson’s Amazing Library

  1. Wow—amazing indeed. I think I’ll discreetly call this post to Moe’s attention. He thinks I have a book storage problem 🙂
    Yes, to preserving Jefferson’s library. Without history like this, I’d have no leverage for keeping my books. Just sayin’

  2. I feel better about my own book “collection” after the research on
    Jefferson’s library! Glad to know others have storage problems,
    but, for me, it’s a nice problem to have. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Did you know that Jefferson sold his library because he was in debt from all his building expenses at Monticello? As soon as he received the money, he started collecting books all over again. So his “donation” wasn’t particularly altruistic, though we are still grateful for it.

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