Library (Book Room)

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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View into the Bookroom from Jefferson's Cabinet (Study)
View into the Bookroom from Jefferson's Cabinet (Study)

Dimensions: 14' 10"x 15' 3" (with an annex 10' 10" x 10' 1"); ceiling 10' 0"

Order: Tuscan

Color: There is evidence that this space was originally wallpapered; today painted oyster white

Purpose of Room: Held Jefferson's libraries, the largest of which consisted of more than 6,000 books and was sold to Congress in 1815

Architectural features: Part of a "suite" of private rooms used by Jefferson, comprised of the Library, the Greenhouse, the Cabinet, and Jefferson's Bedroom; the plan based on an octagon, a favored architectural shape for Jefferson

Furnishings of Note: Books (most of the books in Monticello today represent the same titles but not the original books Jefferson owned); book boxes stacked as bookshelves (today, reproductions are shown); an octagonal filing table, with drawers labeled for alphabetical filing; the easy chair which Jefferson, according to tradition, used while vice president; Jefferson's desk used for reading, writing, or drawing.

The Man Who Couldn't Live Without Books

It is by now a familiar story of how the former president, Thomas Jefferson, living in retirement, offered his own magnificent library, which he had spent a lifetime and a fortune creating, as a replacement for the congressional library that had been destroyed by the British troops in August of 1814; how the Congress debated its purchase on shamefully partisan grounds; how they finally voted by a very narrow margin to acquire it at a bargain price; and how Jefferson's great library then became the foulidation of the future Library of Congress. In retrospect, it seems fairly clear that had the Congress not bought the extraordinary collection of Thomas Jefferson, its collection would have developed in accordance with a much narrower conception and the Library of Congress would never have become what it is now, a great national repository for all manner of materials, on every imaginable subject, for the use and benefit of all. [1] One would not have to know vely much about Jefferson to infer that by the time he had carefully arranged, labeled, and boarded the books up in their presses and shipped them off in 10 wagons to Washington in the Spring of 1815, he had already started to build a new library, a collection which would burgeon, in his 11 remaining years, to more than 2,250 volumes. I It was at this time that he confessed to John Adams, "I cannot live without books."

This addiction to books was an early phenomenon. His father was without formal education, but, as Jefferson put it, "read much and improved himself." Perhaps as a consequence, the boy grew up with books, and his inqnisitive nature and studious temperament were formed and fed by reading from an early age. By the time he was five, he is said to have read all the books in his father's modest library. He then began formal schooling, and by age 14 he was well grounded in Latin, Greek, and French. He relished his studies and gained a reputation as a zealous student, who, as a schoolboy, when a holiday was declared, would not take part in the frivolity until he had prepared his lessons for the next day. At the College of William and Mary, he said he studied 15 hours a day, and though he had close friends and liked to socialize with them, his classmate John Page tells us that he "could tear himself from the company of his dearest friends and fly to his studies."

Jefferson's was truly an extraordinary capacity for learning. When he left William and Mary in 1762 after only two years and without takig a degree, it was in order to further his education. His principal instructor, Dr. William Small, may have felt that Jefferson had gotten all that the college curriculum had to offer him, for he arranged for his star pupil to become apprenticed to the eminent lawyer and classical scholar, George Wythe. In the five years before he began to practice before the bar, the young Jefferson read exhaustively in all facets of the law; he taught himself Italian and Anglo-Saxon; he increased his fluency in Greek; and he read intensively in history, philosophy, and literature.

All of this time, of course, he was building a library, about which we have, unfortunately, only sketchy information. We have a record of the books he bought from the office of the Virginia Gazette for the years 1764 and 1765, and we have the commonplace books in which he entered extracts from his reading in law and literature. A few other clues exist about the character of this early version of his library, but we do not have the books themselves, for in 1770, even as he was starting to build quarters for himself on the little mountain across the river, his mother's house burned, and he lost almost everything he owned, including most of his library. The only tangible clue to its size is the £200 he estimated it was worth, a problematical indicator because of the wide disparity between the cost of locally purchased as opposed to imported books. But a reasonable estimate, taking these factors into consideration, is 300-400 volumes. By the standards of the time, even among wealthy Virginia planters, this was an unusually large collection of books. But this was no usual collector. He now conceived an ambitious and comprehensive plan for the library that would complement the contemplated grandeur of Monticello, and he acted vigorously to implement this plan. In just three year's time, he had assembled a collection of 1,250 books at Monticello alone, and he had more books in the quarters he maintained at Williamsburg. Making sort of Jeffersonian calculation, we may observe that this would constitute an average acquisition rate over the three-year period of about one book per day. His ability to acquire books in a colony that published relatively few of its own, and at a time when most books had to be imported from abroad, was truly remarkable. By the end of the Revolution some 10 years later, during which time trade was much impeded or entirely cut off, he had accumulated a library that numbered 2,640 volumes.

How did he manage this incredible feat? For one thing, he was constantly placing orders with booksellers, both at home and abroad, directly and through friends and other intermediaries. He bought large numbers of books at the dispersal sales of private libraries, such as that of William Byrd of Westover, the learned Richard Bland, and the leader of the Virginia legislature, Peyton Randolph. When the hostilities between the colonies and the crown prompted certain citizens, such as teachers at the College of William and Mary, to return to England, Jefferson's library benefited from the purchase of books that could not be carried back. And during the sessions of the Continental Congress, he was apparently combing the bookstalls of Philadelphia, the intellectual and publishing center of the colonies.

By 1783, as he prepared to travel to France, the catalogue of his library that listed the 2,640 books he owned also carried the titles of scores of others he hoped to acquire in Europe. During the five years that he remained in France representing the United States, he acquired well over 2,000 additional volumes for his library. Thus, in the twenty-year period between 1770 and 1790, Jefferson acquired something in the neighborhood of 5,000 books, for an average of about 250 books a year.

The dimensions of Jefferson's bibliomania are thus staggering, and it would not be unreasonable to suppose that his ability to acquire books must have thoroughly outstripped his ability to read and assimilate them. And while it is more than likely that he owned many books that he never read all the way through, the evidence is overwhelming that his familiarity with the contents of his books was very great indeed, that he acquired each book for a particular reason, and that, in fact, far from being an indiscriminate glutton for books of any kind, he was actually very selective about the books that he put on his shelves.

Jefferson's library, vast as it was by any available standard, was, then, carefully and deliberately built. He prided himself most on the care with which the books were chosen, and he emphasized this selectivity in characterizing his library to others. It was, be always insisted, a library for use, and it had been designed to aid him in the particular business of his life, which made it heavy on law, history, and politics. Had his life taken different turns, he argued, had he not been called upon to participate in the great political movements of the day, his library would have been quite different. Nonetheless he had books to consult for all his interests and occupations, and he used them assiduously. One of the most telling glimpses we have of Jefferson in his library is given by his former slave, Isaac, whose recollections constitute a series of incisive pictures of the man in his characteristic employments. Isaac remembered: "Old master had abundance of books: sometimes would have twenty of 'em down on the floor at once: read fust one then tother. Isaac has often wondered how old master came to have such a mighty head: read so many of them books: & when they go to ax him anything, he go right to the book & tell you about it."

I have written above about the numbers that constituted. at various stages.. this abundance of books because it is a subject about which there has been much confusion and a good deal of misinformation. Although Thomas Jefferson was an unusually methotical man who kept careful records on everything from the weather to the contents of his wine cellar, when it came to the size of his great library, he was surprisingly vague. He told a correspondent in 1811 "my bibliomany has possessed me of perhaps 20,000 volumes," a figure he probably intended as an exaggeration. In January 1814, he estimated his library at "about seven or eight thousand volumes." Both of these seem to be serious estimates, but why they should be at variance, and why the first should turn out to he more accurate than the second, is difficult to explain. This uncertainty about the size of Jefferson's famous library has proved strangley infectious and continues down to the present day. As late as 1958, the Encyclopedia Britannica was reporting its size as 13,000 volumes, and, more recently, the dust jacket of a book published just last year put this number at 10,000.

When E. Millicent Sowerby prepared her monumental five-volume Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson for the Library of Congress, one might have expected that she would resolve this problem once and for all, but in fact she only added to the confusion. Her own numbering system was not geared to volumes, and in discussing her work a few years later before the Bibliographical Society of America, she confessed that she could never discover whether the figure usually given for Jefferson's library of 6,500 referred to "hooks or volumes." In spite of Miss Sowerby's expressed confusion, that figure clearly derives from a volume count made at the time of the sale. This count was not made by its owner nor was it made at Monticello. It was performed at Jefferson's request by Joseph Milligan, a Georgetown bookseller, and was done in Washington from the manuscript catalogue that had been sent for the inspection of the joint congressionlal library committee. He was able to make a count away from the library because Jefferson's catalogue entries specified the number of volumes for each entry. The exact number arrived at by Milligan, which was duly written into the congressional legislation authorizing the purchase of Jefferson's library, was 6,487 volumes, but even this number was, alas, in error.

When the decision to purchase the library had finallv been taken by Congress, Jefferson's manuscript catalogue was returned to him at Monticello in March 1815, and he proceeded to "revise" his library, by which he meant carefully comparing the catalogue with the books on the shelves. In offering his books to Congress six months earlier, he had warned: "I have not revised the library since I came home to live, so that it is probable some of the books may be missing . . ." With the numbers specified so precisely in the legislation, he became concerned that he might not be able to provide what the Congress had coutracted for. Upon making a careful count, he was relieved to discover that the number of volumes accidentally excluded from the catalogue far exceeded the number included but missing from the shelves.

In perfect keeping with the ambiguity surrounding the size of Jefferson's library is the fact that his own tally sheet, an important document which survives but seems to have gone unnoticed, contains totals that are overmitten and therefore difficult to read, but the grand total, being the number of bound volumes that were sent off to Congress in April, was 6,707. According to Jefferson's final reckoning, he sent Cougress 220 volumes more than they had bargained for, something he felt obligated to do because they had contracted, at his insistence, for the entire library. As a consequence, he actually received $1,172 less than he might have, but characteristically, though he reckoned up the difference on his tally sheet, he offered no complaint.

Sadly, almost two-thirds of the original volumes of Jefferson's great library are no longer in the Library of Congress, largely due to a disastrous fire in 1851. But it seems likely that nothing could have given Thomas Jefferson more pleasure and satisfaction than to know that his library would continue to he studied and talked about even after a substantial portion of it had been destroyed, and that it would still be important to posterity if not a single copy of the original librnry survived. This is an object lesson in the kind of immortality that Jefferson believed in-a dispensation wherein things that have lost their material form retain their value and so take on an importance that transcends the limits of time and space. And this importance that we accord Jefferson's library is perhaps the final and most fitting tribute to the man who couldn't live without books.


  1. Based on Douglas L. Wilson, Monticello Keepsakes, April 12, 2002.