Gently, gently, the librarian opens the first of the five books displayed on the large wooden table, and age seems to rise up from the pages like a wavy distortion above heated pavement.
It’s an English volume, “A New System of Modern Geography,” in its first American printing in 1794, bound in brown leather with marbled paper, and gold gilt along the top edge. On an inside right page is the neatly formal signature of its most famous owner — the first president of the United States.
The book has navigational charts and a Copernican model of a sun-centered solar system. George Washington read this book, you think, and dusty old history feels immediately present and tactile and shivery. That’s the effect James Rees, president and chief executive of George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, Museum and Gardens, was going for when he decided to replicate the first president’s 1,200-volume personal library, book by book.
“A rare book library will send chills up your spine,” Rees says. “You wouldn’t associate Washington with a library as much as you would guns,” but he says Washington has been underestimated all these years.
Washington’s personal library is part of the larger $100 million Fred W. Smith National Library, opening September 2013. Named for the benefactor who chairs the Las Vegas-based Reynolds Foundation, which provided a majority of the building’s funding, the 45,000-square-foot library will consist of three floors, built into a hillside on a 55-acre portion of Mount Vernon that was once part of Washington’s original farm. It will house historical manuscripts, special collection photos and memorabilia, and 150 years of Mount Vernon archives.
Washington’s original books, which were catalogued before his death, were split among family members after he died. By 1848, most were sold to Henry Stevens, a prominent Massachusetts bookseller. After Stevens announced plans to sell his collection to the British Museum, a Boston and Cambridge-based group purchased the collection and donated it to the Boston Athenaeum, where it remains today.
Mount Vernon has fewer than 50 of the original books and 450 duplicate additions — same book, same printing. The rest will hopefully come from the Boston Athenaeum, through purchases or donations, or they will be replicated with pages scanned from the Athenaeum’s collection and put into an 18th-century-style binding with endpaper and leather and gold tooling.
Libraries have been replicated before “but it’s not been done for Washington because no one would have thought his library was interesting enough to do it,” Rees says. The first president was self-conscious about his lack of formal education. He was self-taught. Though the books will eventually be available digitally, Rees hopes scholars and researchers “will eventually be able to stand in this room and look at the library around him. To learn about his personality and likes and dislikes through what he was reading.” He hopes it will lead to a fuller measure of the man and a deeper feel for history.
Rees, 60, who calls himself Washington’s public relations agent, has been looking for new ways to study history since he was appointed president of Mount Vernon in 1994. He hadn’t expected to stay this long. Now, on the eve of his June 1 retirement, forced upon him by a degenerative brain disease, Rees is mindful of time and how the lessons of one place get telegraphed to another. Washington’s life still offers parables and areas of inquiry, he says. There was his childhood, his religion, “his life was so complicated” and his books speak to that.
They include a play by Plutarch, which was a study of ancient Roman leadership, and a history of Cinncinatus, the Roman who quit his farm to become a military leader, then went back to farming. Rees’s favorite is a math book full of complicated drawings Washington owned at 16.
“It took so much self-actualization to learn from that,” Rees says. “This guy buys a math book at 16 with all its challenging material, and it’s going to be important to know when he is on the battlefield at 50.”
Then there was the book containing “Rules of Civility,” more than 100 of which Washington took the time to copy.
Though Washington’s personal library will be open only to researchers, a temporary exhibit, “George Washington: A Reader,” will be housed in Mount Vernon’s museum with some of the original books under glass. In the administration library room, Kurt Bodling, a technical services librarian, makes studied ritual of opening another volume lying between foam cushions. There are a couple of books where Washington wrote in the margins, Bodling explains as he opens an illustrated 1763 encyclopedia from London with George Washington’s personal book plate to signify ownership.
A request to touch it, because that is the impulse, is firmly rejected. To handle the books, Bodling explains, your hands have to be very clean and you have to treat “everything very gently.”
Other books include a 1787 edition of “Don Quixote” bought by Washington the day Congress approved the Constitution. Perhaps travel reading on Washington’s trips back to Mount Vernon? There’s a book on economics and taxation inscribed by the author, Andrew Hamilton, “To His Excellency George Washington, Esq., President of the Congress of the States of America,” in a reminder of a time before the country had settled. The last book, acquired in 2011, was “Cadmus, or, A Treatise on the Elements of Written Language,” whose author, William Thornton, was the first architect of the Capitol. These are the people Washington rubbed shoulders with, Bodling says. He “wasn’t just a general or a politician. He lived in the same broad-ranging intellectual world.”
Rees has no post-retirement plans, other than to attend to his health. He will continue to live in the two-story brick tudor with the river view on the grounds of Mount Vernon.
“I arrived when Mount Vernon was a very simple place,” he said. “You got in line, went to the house and pretty much that was it.”
On the eve of his retirement, he is animated about the new library and still spinning the Washington story forward, talking about the very, very old as a chance to see the first president anew.
“It’s not been done for Washington because no one would have thought his library was interesting enough to do it.”
James Rees, about replicating George Washington’s personal library, an effort he began as head of Mount Vernon