A Library Thomas Jefferson Would Love

For lovers of rare books and manuscripts, the Library of Congress is an enchanting place to spend the day. I have just returned from a trip there organized by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the LOC curators pulled out some real gems for the occasion: an important letter from John Adams to Benjamin Franklin; a book of musical compositions by Frances Hopkinson, who signed the Declaration of Independence and who evidently had a talent for politics and the arts; a letter from Theodore Roosevelt to his son, with sketches telling the child a bedtime story; and a book belonging to Franklin, which he vigorously annotated with a rejection of the author's feelings about representative government, leaving us with the impression that Franklin thought the author an idiot.

We also visited the Folger Shakespeare Library and saw Henry VIII's schoolboy copy of Cicero, (shown at right) in which he authoritatively declared, "This boke is myne. Prynce Henry." Perhaps someone had challenged his title.

It is all warm and eclectic material. But my source of intrigue was in public space on the second floor of the Library of Congress's Jefferson building: a collection billed as Thomas Jefferson's Library.

During the War of 1812, the British burned the Capitol and with it what was then the Library of Congress. Amid some congressional rancor, the government bought Jefferson's collection of books, the largest such personal collection at a time when the rarity and expense of books meant large collections were uncommon. The price: $23,950. Interestingly, Jefferson organized his library not alphabetically but thematically by his own scheme: Memory (History), Reason (Philosophy) and Imagination (Fine Arts). The library is diverse linguistically, as Jefferson was multilingual, and reflects his scholarship. LOC curators have kept Jefferson's categories and presented the books on shelves encircling a central common space, with a handful of volumes open to pages of import. Touch screens allow you to browse titles. It's an impressive exhibition.

But is this really Jefferson's library? Well…yes and no. It turns out that the money appropriated by Congress for Jefferson's library was largely wasted, as another fire in 1851 destroyed two-thirds of those books. What we see today is a recent reconstruction financed by Jerry Jones, of Dallas Cowboys fame.

My first reaction was to wonder how much scholarship was lost, how many of Jefferson's notes became ash. Very little as it turns out. Unlike the common practice during Henry VIII's time, when margins were much larger to accommodate notations, Jefferson neither wrote his name nor made extensive edits in the margins. Nor did he vent his opinions on matters within that book. He would occasionally write a small initial to indicate the book belonged to him.

I for one cannot read a book without a pen handy. (Other people must be the same way–even the iPad gives options to create notes.) I also enjoy the notes of others, because they give a glimpse into another reader's personality. Sometimes those notes are more interesting than the book itself, as with the Benjamin Franklin example.

Jefferson did write extensively about the books he read. In our collection, we have one such letter (shown above) relating to a book on the American Revolution. This letter gives us two possible explanations for Jefferson's habits: His praise of the author ("Neutral as an historian should be in the relation of facts") might indicate a technical dispassion that could manifest itself in an analytical, less discursive approach to reading. The letter also mentions loaning the book out, which could mean he felt a need to keep his books clean for other readers (this is perhaps a more persuasive argument). Or maybe he simply did not like marking up books. My wife doesn't write in books, and she's neither a historian nor a book lender, as far as I know. Of course, a skeptic (which I am not) could say that Jefferson kept his books clean so he could sell them later. The skeptic's argument is made most persuasive by Jefferson's creation of a second collection–which he eventually sold for a hefty sum, in order to satisfy his creditors.

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