On the Hunt for Jefferson's Lost Books

A Library of Congress curator is on a worldwide mission to find exact copies of the books that belonged to Thomas Jefferson

Library of Congress curator Mark Dimunation embarked on years-long mission to track down copies of books once owned by Thomas Jefferson. (Molly Roberts)

For more than a decade, Mark Dimunation has led a quest to rebuild an American treasure—knowing he will likely never see the complete results of his efforts.

On an August day 195 years ago, the British burned the U.S. Capitol in the War of 1812 and by doing so, destroyed the first Library of Congress. When the war ended, former President Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his personal library, which at 6,487 books was the largest in America, to Congress for whatever price the legislators settled upon. After much partisan debate and rancor, it agreed to pay Jefferson $23,950.

Then another fire in the Capitol on Christmas Eve of 1851 incinerated some 35,000 volumes, including two-thirds of the books that had belonged to Jefferson. And although Congress appropriated funds to replace much of the Library of Congress collection, the restoration of the Jefferson library fell by the wayside.

Since 1998, Dimunation, the rare-books and special collections curator for the Library of Congress, has guided a slow-moving, yet successful search for the 4,324 Jefferson titles that were destroyed. The result of his labor thus far is on view at the library in the Jefferson Collection Exhibition.

Standing in the center of the exhibit surrounded by circular shelving containing books of all shapes and subjects, visitors get a sense of the scale of Jefferson's library. Some of the spines appear wizened with age, others straight at attention. Many of the books have a green or yellow ribbon peeking out from their top. Those with a green ribbon were owned by Jefferson and those with a yellow ribbon are replacements. Books without a ribbon were taken from elsewhere in the library. "Our objective is to put on the shelf exactly the same book Jefferson would have owned. Not another edition, not the same work but printed later. The exact book that he would have owned," Dimunation says.

White boxes (297 in all) tucked in between the aged books represent missing books. "The inflow of books has slowed down right now, but it's moving at enough of a deliberate pace that it will continue," says Dimunation. "I just ordered one this week."

Make that 297 missing books.

But how did the curator and others at the Library of Congress obtain more than 4,000 18th-century books that exactly matched those owned by Jefferson? With research, patience and help from an unnamed source.
The Jefferson project, as the undertaking is called, began in 1998 with the goal of collecting as many of Jefferson's books in place as possible by the library's bicentennial in 2000. Working up to 20 hours a day, Dimunation led his team through first identifying what in the library at the time of the fire had belonged to Jefferson, what had survived and what was missing.

An essential reference in this initial stage was a 1959 five-volume catalog of Jefferson's original books compiled by Millicent Sowerby, a library employee. Not only did Sowerby note which books were Jefferson's using historical and library records, she also scoured the president's personal papers, adding annotations to the catalog every time he mentioned a work in his writings.

When the exhibit opened in 2000 after a thorough search in the library that resulted in some 3,000 matches, two-thirds of the entire collection was on display. Then, in a nod to Jefferson's methods of acquisition, Dimunation hired a rare-book dealer who had the contacts and resources to find specific things within the highly selective antique book market. This individual, who got involved because of the historic nature of the project, chooses to remain anonymous "as a gesture to the American people," says Dimunation. By using a dealer, no one knew that the Library of Congress was behind the purchases, which decreased the chances that booksellers would inflate their prices.


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