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

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

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(Continued from page 1)

The mysterious dealer delivered. For eight months, boxes containing 15 to 20 books, among them a volume about horse breeding and a gardener's dictionary, arrived in regular intervals at the library. Meanwhile, Dimunation also hunted for books by calling specialized dealers and going through subject lists with them. Funding for the Jefferson project was provided by a $1 million grant from Jerry and Gene Jones, owners of the Dallas Cowboys football team.

As the library's dealer began to have less success locating books, Dimunation spent a year brainstorming a new approach, and in following years, targeted his searches by the volume's country of origin and subject. Then in 2006, he sent Dan De Simon, curator of the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection at the library and a former bookseller, to Amsterdam, Paris and London with a list of about 400 books to find. He came home with more than 100, quite a haul given the project's stagnation. It included a work by famed game-expert Edmond Hoyle about "whist, quadrille, piquet and bac-gammon."

Currently, lists of books wanted by Dimunation are circulating throughout markets in two continents. But the last 297 volumes will take time to find, and Dimunation isn't sure he will ever see them. Jefferson preferred second editions of books, because he thought first editions had errors, and "Dublin," or pirated, editions, because of their handy size. Both of these preferences make it hard to find exact matches.

In addition, some of the titles are simply obscure (such as a pamphlet on growing pomegranates), some of the listings might have mistakes, and some might not even be books, meaning they are articles or chapters submitted off printing presses before being bound. Two or three books on the list are American imprints that haven't been on the market in more than 100 years, and should they become available, the library would be in a long line to acquire them.

All of these challenges, however, haven't diminished Dimunation's enthusiasm for the project or his sense of humor. "There's a certain level of job security with this project," he says with a laugh, pushing his brown-rimmed glasses on to his forehead. "But those of us who are really involved in the long-term, you just become really committed to get it done. It is the foundation of the world's largest library. It's a very compelling story."

Moreover, these books aren't meant to be hallowed tomes locked behind glass. Many are still used by researchers today. Dimunation remembers a woman who requested a compilation of essays about theater during the English Restoration visiting shortly after the exhibit opened in 2000.

"I showed her how to handle the book, which is what we do in the rare-book reading room, and then I said, ‘Could you please make sure this green ribbon stays visible?' and she said, ‘Oh sure. Why, what is it?' And I said it comes from an exhibit and is Thomas Jefferson's copy," he recalls. "She threw her hands back and said, ‘I don't want to touch it.' I said she had to because it's the only copy we have!"

She sat and stared at the book for several minutes before gingerly turning the pages. "Jefferson would have loved that moment," Dimunation says. "People would travel to Jefferson to see and use his books, and here this woman is doing it almost 200 years later."

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