June 4, 2014

Where are Thomas Jefferson’s books?


The Library of Congress is looking for 250 books to restore Thomas Jefferson's collection. ©Carlos Delgado / Via Wikimedia Commons

The Library of Congress is looking for 250 books to restore Thomas Jefferson’s collection.
©Carlos Delgado / Via Wikimedia Commons

The president’s books are missing! Laura Sullivan reports for Morning Edition on NPR that several hundred books from Thomas Jefferson’s collection—earmarked for the Library of Congress—are unaccounted for, and Library staffers are trying to find copies.

Before you get too excited, this isn’t as farcical it initially sounds. Librarians didn’t misplace the books or lose the key to some hidden vault in Monticello where the tomes in question are just waiting to be unearthed. A sizable chunk of Jefferson’s personal library was lost to a fire in 1851, and it’s only relatively recently that the Library launched a search to restore the collection to the state that the president intended.

Jefferson was actually driven to sell his books to the American public by another fire. When the British captured Washington during the War of 1812, they burned many public buildings, including the White House and the Capitol. At the site of what was then a library, they used all 3,000 books as kindling to start a fire (the spot now coincides with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office; maybe it’s cursed, and that’s why McConnell is so terrible). Mark Dimunation, chief of rare books and special collections at the Library of Congress, says that Jefferson was “so devastated by the loss of this library that he changes his plans, and offers to the American people the sale of his personal library for whatever cost they’re willing to pay,” which turned out to be about $23,000 for 6,487 books.

In 1815, the books were relocated from Monticello to Blodgett’s Hotel, which became the Library of Congress, only for two thirds of them to go up in smoke in the aforementioned 1851 fire (this one accidental). As Sullivan explains, “now those 2,000 surviving volumes line the shelves of the library just as Jefferson like them – sorted by topic and organized in a circle, so he could get any information he needed quickly.”

Sixteen years ago, the Library launched its efforts to track down exact copies of the missing 4,000-something books, all in secret to avoid driving up the price. Dimunation was able to obtain about 2,000 from auction houses, public libraries and book dealers; and the Library catalog turned up another 2,000. But there are still 250 at large: some of them unavailable, and others entirely unknown. Dimunation explains that Jefferson had an impressive range of titles in his library, right down to “an 11-page pamphlet about the pomegranate tree.”

Jefferson’s collection is currently on display at the Library of Congress, and — as he would have wanted — available for public use. Books that came directly from his personal library at Monticello are marked with green ribbons, and exact copies (down to the edition and printing press) that came from other sources with yellow ribbons. The as-yet undiscovered books are represented by placeholders, black boxes with the titles printed on them. The list of missing books doesn’t seem to have been released, presumably in a continued attempt to keep the price on any new discoveries from skyrocketing, but if you’ve been hoarding anything in your attic that looks like it could have belonged to the third president, you might want to consider giving/selling it to the Library of Congress.


Nick Davies is a publicist at Melville House.