A Spark of Genius

“I cannot live without books.”


LC ArchCara/Andrea
here, musing today about Thomas Jefferson, a fascinating “Renaissance Man” of the Regency era, whose love of books left America with one of its great treasures—The Library of Congress. (Honestly, how can you not feel kindred spirits with a man who uttered the above words! Definitely a man after my own heart.)

TJeffPolitical philosopher—he was the main author of our Declaration of Independence—Enlightenment intellectual, a leading Founding Father and third President of the United States, as well as an architect, inventor, and founder of the University of Virginia, Jefferson was a man of extraordinary talents and achievements, one of which was being one of the guiding forces behind the establishment of a national library, and the ideals it stands for. The Library of Congress website says it succinctly: “The Jeffersonian concept of universality is the rationale for the comprehensive collecting policies of today's Library of Congress. Jefferson's belief in the power of knowledge and the direct link between knowledge and democracy shaped the Library's philosophy of sharing its collections and services as widely as possible.”
 
LC 2The Library of Congress, which is the oldest federal cultural institution in the country, was officially established in 1800 by President John Adams, who approved a bill authorizing a budget of $5,000 to purchase "such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress." An order was sent across the pond to London for 740 books and three maps, which were first housed n the U.S. Capitol. After Jefferson took office as the third President of the United States in 1801, he took an active involvement in the development of the Library, personally recommending books for the collection. His intellectual curiosity and belief that a library should have a wide range of subjects, languages, and ideas in order to provoke thought and challenge one’s own preconceptions shaped the Library’s early mission and continues to do so today. As the website says, “The Jeffersonian concept of universality is the rationale for the comprehensive collecting policies of today's Library of Congress. Jefferson's belief in the power of knowledge and the direct link between knowledge and democracy shaped the Library's philosophy of sharing its collections and services as widely as possible.” (Huzzah for Mr. Jefferson!)

LC 1

Book
T Jefferson His influence didn’t end when he left office. In fact, perhaps his greatest gift to the Library came in 1815, in the aftermath of the 1814 British invasion of Washington DC, during which their troops burned the Capitol building and all of the 3,000 books of the Library of Congress. (We forgive you, Jo and Nicola!) On hearing of the loss, Jefferson offered his own personal library to the Congress for whatever price they wished to set. The offer was accepted, and the Library of Congress more than doubled its original holding in one transaction, not to speak of acquiring one of the finest collections of books in America.

TJ BooksAn avid bibliophile from an early age, Jefferson had spent over 50 putting together his private library. The range of its holdings was impressive, and included works of philosophy, science, literature, architecture—even cookbooks!—as well as many in foreign languages. In the end, Congress paid him $23,950. for 6487 books. (The price was based on the measurements of the actual book sizes!)
Jefferson set to work cataloguing and packing the collection for the journey from Monticello to Washington DC. While many book collections of the time were arranged alphabetically, he chose to order them by subject. (I love the Headings, which include The Hierarchy of Memory for History, and Imagination for Fine Arts.)

TJ Books 2Alas, another fire in 1851 destroyed nearly two-thirds of the Library of Congress’s books, including a number of Jefferson’s original volumes. Today, however, the Library is slowly replacing the lost ones with editions from the same era. The Jefferson Library is on permanent display in a special space, and green ribbons sticking up from the spine mark originals, while white ribbons mark the replacements. As for its size, today the Library of Congress and the British Library are the two biggest libraries in the world.

For those who haven’t visited the main Jefferson Building in Washington DC, it’s a fabulous experience that shouldn’t be missed. The building itself is breathtakingly beautiful (as befits Jefferson’s architectural skills) featuring majestic classical columns, stained glass skylights and magnificent murals celebrating art, authors and books. The changing exhibits showcase material from the extensive holdings (up now is a fascinating exhibit on the Civil War.)

Columns 2

LC 3To give a feeling of the breath and scope of the Library’s treasures, I’ll let its own description speak for itself: “The diversity of the Library of Congress is startling. Simultaneously it serves as: a legislative library and the major research arm of the U.S. Congress; the copyright agency of the United States; a center for scholarship that collects research materials in many media and in most subjects from throughout the world in more that 450 languages; a public institution that is open to everyone over high school age and serves readers in twenty-two reading rooms; a government library that is heavily used by the executive
Sign
branch and the judiciary; a national library for the blind and physically handicapped; an outstanding law library; one of the world's largest providers of bibliographic data and products; a center for the commissioning and performance of chamber music; the home of the nation's poet laureate; the sponsor of exhibitions and of musical, literary, and cultural programs that reach across the nation and the world; a research center for the preservation and conservation of library materials; and the world's largest repository of maps, atlases, printed and recorded music, motion pictures and television programs.” I hope that you, like me, are now smiling.


Reading room
The original fire got me to thinking about building a library from scratch. So, let’s have some fun! What books would you pick as essential for its collection? A few that immediately come to my mind are the complete works of Shakespeare, Pride and Prejudice, The Old and New Testament and Newton’s Principia. What about you? What “greats” would you include? Please share!