Jefferson's Library Once Again Complete

The Library of Congress has managed to re-create —with the help of rare-book collectors —-the missing two-thirds of Thomas Jefferson's Library. Mark Dimunation, of the Library of Congress, discusses Jefferson's tastes and rare-book detectives.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

George Washington's copy of the Constitution.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The first map with the word America on it.

SIEGEL: And the 15th century Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed using moveable type.

NORRIS: Just some of the 138 million items at the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world, located right behind the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

On the second floor, under a dome of the main building there's a new exhibit - 20 climate-controlled bookcases, each 10 feet tall, standing in an open circle.

Mr. MARK DIMUNATION (Chief of Rare Books and Special Collections, Library of Congress): I really just think of it as Jefferson's world. We're just surrounded by Jefferson's world here.

NORRIS: That's Mark Dimunation, the chief of Rare Books and Special Collections at the Library of Congress. For the past decade, he and his staff have been trying to recreate the library Thomas Jefferson kept at his Monticello home.

Mr. DIMUNATION: These are the books that he owned and worked with to write the Declaration of Independence. These are the books that consulted and obtained in order to be a better diplomat in France. This is a historian who chronicled the early histories of Virginia - the planter, the gardener, architect, the musician, the gourmand, the vintner.

NORRIS: Which explains why you can find "Common Sense" by Thomas Paine, Plato's "Republic" and Adamo Fraboni's(ph) (Italian spoken), "The Art of Making of Making Wine" also among the shelves. And, yes, Jefferson did read Italian. He also read French, Latin and Spanish. He loved his books.

Mr. DIMUNATION: It's 6,487 volumes, which represents almost 5,000 titles. This was accumulated over the span of about 50 years.

NORRIS: Why did he sell his library?

Mr. DIMUNATION: He was mortified that in the - with the destruction of the Capitol during the War of 1812, when the Capitol was burned by the British, with it burned the Congressional Library. And he felt it extremely important that to govern in an enlightened world, in a world of reason, that governors required access to thought, philosophy, reason, law. It was very much a notion of the Enlightenment that any problem can be solved if one goes about in determined study to arrive at the best solution. So he offers to sell his collection to the American people - at that time, the largest collection held in private hands in North America. His gesture was that he was going to sell it at whatever price Congress would pay.

NORRIS: Twenty-four thousand dollars later, the equivalent of $334,000 today, Congress had a new library - a bargain, says Mark Dimunation. However, it because a huge loss in 1851 when another fire destroyed two thirds of Jefferson's collection. The match wasn't lit by the British that time. It was a faulty chimney flue. To recreate Jefferson's library, Dimunation and his staff first combed through their own shelves at the Library of Congress. They found a couple thousand books. Then the hunt for replacements took them to the antiquarian book market, where they bought a couple thousand more. These books are treasures, often irreplaceable, so they're protected behind glass. But this being the information age, you can virtually browse through many of them, much as you would in a regular library.

Mr. DIMUNATION: So we're standing here at the kiosk that has books in front of us on imagination.

NORRIS: Through the wonders of technology, Dimunation glides his fingers across the table-top touch screen. With a tap, he selects a book from the shelf. It's Machiavelli's "The Prince."

Mr. DIMUNATION: You're looking at the title page of the book in Italian. If we click on view this book, I can actually turn the pages with my finger on the actual display screen. So we're actually paging through this book digitally. Or, if you'd like, we can actually translate it. So there it says chapter two, "Considering Hereditary Principalities."

NORRIS: Another book, part of a two-volume set by John Quincy Adams, reveals an inscription when Dimunation opens the screen: John Adams, to Thomas Jefferson - January 1st, 1812. It was a gift from the second president to the third, in the years when the two former friends were trying to patch up their relationship. There are gems like this throughout the collection, a collection that, as yet, is incomplete. According to Jefferson's records, Dimunation and his team still have to find 299 books and pamphlets.

Mr. DIMUNATION: There's an Italian pamphlet on the pomegranate tree that I suspect is going to vex us for the rest of this project. There are a couple things like that.

NORRIS: Where would you go to find such a thing?

Mr. DIMUNATION: Apparently, Italy. But we haven't been too lucky so far.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: So if any of you happen to have that pamphlet or a 1789 copy of "The Act for Repealing the Duties on Tobacco and Snuff," well, Mark Dimunation would like to make you an offer. In the meantime, you can visit Thomas Jefferson's books at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: