Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 20, 2010

T.J., Where Are Your Books?

Although National Library Week has concluded, it’s still Library MONTH, giving us an excuse to circle back to the subject of libraries. Piano Nan’s comment about her visit to the Adams Library in Quincy, Mass. (14,000 books!) immediately reminded me that I’d overlooked a notable personal library of the same era. Interestingly, the same idea occurred to the Bandmaster in South Carolina, and it’s a great subject.

First, a disclaimer that I haven’t pulled all the following information out of my memory, and it’s by no means thorough or accurate. You may want to poke around to find more about the subject, but here’s a quick overview.

Thomas Jefferson was probably America’s best claim to having an Enlightenment Sage (well, Adams, Franklin, a few others there).¬†His life was an exemplar of learning and self-improvement, and he never seems to have encountered a subject which didn’t interest him or inspire him to study it and make it his own: writing, politics, philosophy, agriculture, paleontology and inventions of all kinds — he was constantly finding new outlets for an impressively fertile mind.

In keeping with his devotion to study and learning, he was a champion at collecting books. Unfortunately, he had remarkably bad luck at KEEPING them.

Jefferson’s original family estate burned in 1770, and with it, his original library. Books and libraries, of course, have always been extremely fragile objects, subject to all sorts of insults and destruction. The lone extant copy of Beowulf, for example, barely escaped a fire in its library several centuries ago, and when you go to see it in the British Museum, you’ll be able to see the charred edges of the manuscript.

Jefferson set about building a new estate, Monticello. I hope that if you have not visited it, that you find an opportunity to do so. It’s a remarkable place, not just for the building itself, but for the numerous touches that reflect Jefferson’s inventiveness, his really remarkable garden (which has been recreated), and numerous other aspect of the place.

He also set about establishing a new collection of books, which quickly grew to many thousands. Fire again claimed a library, this time the Library of Congress, destroyed when the British burned the Capitol. Jefferson sold more than 6,000 books from his library to the government for $23,000 to serve as the basis for a new national library. There was apparently a lot of controversy about this transaction for a number of reasons, including the objection that many of the books were in foreign languages and on rather esoteric topics that the members of Congress did not consider at all germane to an AMERICAN library. The sale eventually went through.

An observation here regarding both the Adams collection Piano Nan wrote about and Jefferson’s own: at the price Jefferson sold that batch of books, the per-piece price comes to around $4 per book. I am betting that four dollars cash in 18th-century money was a reasonably large sum. Adams and Jefferson both were men of some means, but that’s still a lot of investment in something that didn’t have much intrinsic value, and indicates the degree to which they were devoted to reading and learning!

Jefferson, of course, continued to collect more books, and once again amassed a significantly large library at Monticello, no doubt reflecting whatever new interests had caught hold of him. Although you CAN see books that belonged to Jefferson when you visit Monticello, the bulk of this THIRD of the libraries he amassed also left his possession, this time when he sold much of it to pay creditors.

As it happens, the Library of Congress has a project to reconstitute those original holdings that Jefferson provided to relaunch the Library. The link is

Thanks, Nan and Robert for adding this subject to our celebration of libraries!

If I have missed any important points about Jefferson’s books in my quick survey, or if you have specific recollections about Monticello that pertain here, please feel free to post a comment.


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