BookLove: Thomas Jefferson’s Library


Tucked behind a completely unrelated exhibit on the second floor of the Library of Congress hides a treasure: Thomas Jefferson’s Library.


Here, in a circular display which quietly tugs you into its literary vortex are gathered approximately 5,000 volumes recreating Jefferson’s personal library.  Of these, 3,000 are books which match titles (of the same era but not Jefferson’s exact copy), and 2,000 of the books are his originals. Be still my beating heart. If I am understanding this correctly, that means those books were held by Thomas Jefferson’s own hands.


This priceless collection is displayed in the same arrangement and categories as Jefferson had them displayed in his own library at Monticello in the late 1700s.

“In Thomas Jefferson’s day, most libraries were arranged alphabetically. But Jefferson preferred to arrange his by subject. He chose Lord Bacon’s table of science, the hierarchy of Memory (History), Reason (Philosophy) and Imagination (Fine Arts) to order his arrangement of books by subject with some modifications.” (source).

It put a smile on my face to notice quite a few volumes on architecture, law, politics, and even many books in Italian.


How is it that this collection came to rest in Washington, D.C., instead of Monticello?

In 1814, when the British burned the Capitol during the War of 1812, the Congressional Library perished. Jefferson, a longtime collector of books, had by then amassed such a personal library that he had the largest private collection in the country.

“Short of funds and wanting to see the library re-established, Jefferson offered to sell his personal library to Congress as a replacement for the collection destroyed by the British,” (source). “After some controversy, Congress purchased his library for $23,950 in 1815. Although a second fire on Christmas Eve of 1851 destroyed nearly two-thirds of the 6,487 volumes Congress had purchased from Jefferson, the Jefferson books remain the core from which the present collections of the Library of Congress―the world’s largest library―developed.”


Jefferson’s intention was to use the money he received from the sale of his library to pay off a portion of his debt. But, according to Wikipedia, he immediately started buying more books. 

Something which this book lover can certainly understand.

This post first appeared on Prayers and Piazzas.


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4 thoughts on “BookLove: Thomas Jefferson’s Library

  1. Pingback: Capturing Bliss: Serenity in 14 Photos | Prayers and Piazzas

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