By Amy Orndorff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 11, 2008
In Thomas Jefferson's day, the books he lovingly collected were almost as famous as he was.
Leather-bound tomes on topics as varied as whist, beekeeping and philosophy were gathered from across Europe and colonial America, then brought to Monticello to help fulfill Jefferson's vow to amass the whole of human knowledge. They eventually became the foundation for the Library of Congress, although two-thirds were lost in a fire in 1851.
For the past decade, a small group of rare book experts has sought to re-create Jefferson's library, scouring antiquarian book collections on two continents to acquire thousands of volumes. The entire collection of more than 6,000 volumes -- some originals and some replacements -- will go on display tomorrow at the Library of Congress, looking much as it would have 200 years ago.
"These are the books that made America," said Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Books and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress.
After a lifetime collecting the books, Jefferson, sold them during the War of 1812. British soldiers had set fire to the first congressional library, obliterating more than 1,000 books. Aghast, Jefferson offered his library at whatever price Congress deemed reasonable. In 1815, Congress paid about $24,000 for all 6,487 volumes.
Re-creating such a famous library is a book collector's dream, Dimunation said, and it has not been easy. The search took Dimunation and his staff near and far, from their own stacks to the basements of French booksellers as they hunted down the same editions and obscure pamphlets from the early 1800s.
"We have dealt with the dealers from both coasts and everything in between," Dimunation said with a resigned laugh. "I am still waiting for my pamphlet on brewing beer."
The journey has its roots in 1943, when the library wanted to mark the 200th birthday of Jefferson, the nation's third president and principal author of the Declaration of Independence. Library of Congress employee E. Millicent Sowerby searched through Jefferson's books, notes and letters in the library's collection and drew up a catalogue of books Jefferson would have owned. Although Jefferson maintained a bibliography, it didn't include details that would matter a century and half later to someone trying to re-create his library. Sowerby produced five volumes that include every known note Jefferson ever wrote about a book. It has become a benchmark for similar works.
With Sowerby's work to guide him, Dimunation began to look in 1998 through the library's collection and pull together a re-creation of Jefferson's library to exhibit at the Library of Congress's bicentennial in 2000. He succeeded in finding two thirds of the collection. A third of the original books were in the library's stacks. The library owned other copies of editions that had been burned in 1851 when a faulty chimney flue caused a fire Christmas Eve morning.
But the final third proved elusive, keeping Dimunation and his staff busy for the past eight years. They have made use of a $1 million endowment and have spent from $100 to $17,000 on a single volume.
They have found books in France, the Netherlands, Italy and England. Books came from private collections and universities.
Dimunation dispatched a colleague, Daniel De Simone, to Europe. After 25 years of dealing in the antiquarian book trade, De Simone had many contacts he could go to for help. De Simone said dealers often get lists from collectors looking for books, and he figured that by traveling to the dealers, he would impress on them the importance of the project. That approach was particularly useful in France, where Jefferson had served the young American republic as ambassador. It helped that Jefferson was a renowned Francophile, which endears him to many French to this day.
"They wanted to play, they wanted to participate," De Simone said of the dealers. "The Library of Congress is such an important institution in the rare book world . . . [and] Jefferson's is one of those iconic collections."
One collector in France was so captivated by the project that he spent hours looking through his collection for anything that might match a book on the list.
"There was a bookseller and he saw the list, and he was determined to find a book, and he said he spent hours and found a little pamphlet," De Simone said. "He was so pleased."
The library has replicated not only Jefferson's collection but also the manner in which he displayed it. He arranged his bookshelves in a conch shell pattern, so that a person could walk into the middle and be surrounded by books.
Even Jefferson's system of organizing the books reflected an enlightened thought process, Dimunation said. Every book fell into one of three categories: memory, reason or imagination. An updated version of that system is used by the Library of Congress.
Some of the books are unique. Jefferson sometimes fashioned his own books, taking pages of the same works written in different languages and having them bound. They were not destroyed in the 1851 fire and are included in the exhibit.
The precious books are displayed behind glass for their protection, but visitors can use touch-screen technology to move digitally from page to page.
Despite the massive effort, the collection is incomplete. About 300 volumes may never be found. In some cases, no identical copies exist, and there is insufficient information to determine every book he owned. Some titles aren't on the market for any price.
Still, Dimunation is satisfied.
"You are seeing the library pretty much how Thomas Jefferson would have seen it," Dimunation said.