Saturday, June 20, 2020

Thomas Jefferson’s Library: A Catalog with the Entries in His Own Order, edited by James Gilreath and Douglas L. Wilson

Browsing the polymath’s shelves
Thomas Jefferson, an avid lover of books, amassed one of the largest libraries in the early American republic, a collection of 6,700 volumes. Jefferson sold his library to the U.S. government in 1815, and the Library of Congress was born. At that time, he asked his private secretary Nicholas P. Trist to prepare a catalog of his library that lists the books in the exact order in which Jefferson himself had arranged them. This handwritten manuscript was also deposited in the Library of Congress, but no one discovered it until the 1980s. In 1989, the Library of Congress published the Trist manuscript in the book Thomas Jefferson’s Library: A Catalog with the Entries in His Own Order. The Library of Congress has an html version of this book on its website, and a scanned copy can be downloaded for free from HathiTrust.

As one would expect from Jefferson’s polymathic pursuits as statesman, lawyer, diplomat, architect, scientist, philosopher, and farmer, his library covers a wide breadth of knowledge. Using a method proposed by Francis Bacon in his book The Advancement of Learning, Jefferson divided his books into three main kingdoms: Memory (history, including natural history), Reason (philosophy, law, and mathematics), and Imagination (fine arts and literature). These main headings are further divided into multiple categories and subcategories. Not surprisingly, the sections on law and government are the most extensive, but Jefferson’s collections of history, geography, and natural history are also well developed. Though a slaveholder, Jefferson owned at least a dozen books on slavery, the titles of which indicate an unmanifested philosophical leaning towards abolition. Besides the ancient scholars of Greece and Rome, Jefferson’s catalog contains the familiar names of many of his intellectual contemporaries and philosophical predecessors: Franklin, Adams, Humboldt, Linnaeus, Darwin (Erasmus, not Charles), Locke, Kant, Rousseau, Voltaire. It is fascinating to browse through the list and see what this Enlightenment genius had on his mind.

After purchasing the collection in 1915, the Library of Congress altered Jefferson’s catalog, retaining his original categories but listing the books within those categories in alphabetical order. This was obviously done to make the books easier to find, but Jefferson wasn’t happy about it. The editors stress that what makes this volume important is that it lists Jefferson’s books in the exact order he intended. Depending on which of Jefferson’s categories the books fall under, the volumes might be ordered chronologically, thematically, by nationality of origin, or from the general to the specific. By reading Jefferson’s original catalog, the editors insist, one gets an understanding of how Jefferson classified information, and therefore “a blueprint of his own mind.” For me, knowing what books Jefferson owned and read is far more important than knowing what order he put them in. His original shelving pattern is interesting but not essential.

Jefferson, being intimately familiar with his own library, only noted each book with a one-line description of its title, author, language, size, shelf location, and sometimes date. Such scant description will leave bibliophiles wanting more information. Fortunately, those curious for more information on each entry can consult the annotated bibliography Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson compiled by E. Millicent Sowerby. It was published by the Library of Congress in 1952 as five volumes, scanned copies of which can be read and downloaded for free from HathiTrust.
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