About this exhibition
“I cannot live without books.” Thomas Jefferson, June 10, 1815
Throughout his life, books were vital to Thomas Jefferson’s education and well being. His books provided Jefferson with a broader knowledge of the contemporary and ancient worlds than many of his contemporaries had obtained through personal experience.
Jefferson’s library, which developed through several stages, was always critically important to him. When his family home, Shadwell, burned in 1770, Jefferson deeply lamented the loss of his books. In the midst of the American Revolution and while he was United States minister to France in the 1780s, Jefferson acquired thousands of books for his library at Monticello. By 1814, when the British burned the Capitol and with it the Congressional Library, Thomas Jefferson had acquired the largest personal collection of books in the United States.
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. 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.
In this reconstruction of Jefferson’s library, the books have been arranged in an order that Jefferson described as “sometimes analytical, sometimes chronological, and sometimes a combination of both.” Jefferson followed a modified version of the organization of knowledge created by British philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626). The books were divided into categories of “Memory,” “Reason,” and “Imagination”—which Jefferson interpreted as “History,” “Philosophy,” and “Fine Arts”—and further divided into forty-four “chapters.” Included in this re-creation are 2,000 volumes from the original Jefferson Collection—survivors of fire and time. An additional 3,000 or so volumes—editions that match those lost in the fire at the Capitol in 1851—come from other collections in the Library of Congress. Other missing works have been acquired through gifts. Several hundred volumes have been purchased since 2000. These acquisitions were made possible by the generosity of Jerry and Gene Jones.
Full cataloging information for the books in Thomas Jefferson’s library can be found online in the Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson. Compiled with annotations by E. Millicent Sowerby. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1952–1959. The Catalogue is listed under “Selected Special Collections on the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room homepage at http://www.loc.gov/rr/rarebook/coll/130.html.