American Treasures of the Library of Congress: Memory, Exhibit Object Focus

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The Order of Books

Thomas Jefferson to George Watterston
Thomas Jefferson to George Watterston
Polygraph copy
Page 1, enlarged - Page 2
Page 2, enlarged - Page 3
Page 3, enlarged
May 7, 1815
Manuscript Division

George Watterston (1783-1854)
Attributed to Thomas Birch
George Watterston (1783-1854)
Watercolor, 1811
Rare Book & Special Collections Division (7A.9)

James Madison appointed George Watterston as Librarian of Congress in 1815--the first to hold the position full time. One of Watterston's initial tasks was to receive the shipment of books newly purchased from Thomas Jefferson. On April 26, 1815, Watterston wrote to Jefferson asking for the best way to arrange the books: "Your long acquaintance with books & your literary habits have, doubtless, led you to the adoption of some plan of arrangement with respect to libraries, which I should be happy if you would communicate."

In Jefferson's day, most libraries were arranged alphabetically. But Jefferson preferred to arrange his by subject. As he explains here to Librarian of Congress George Watterston, he chose "Lord Bacon's table of science," the hierarchy of Memory (History), Reason (Philosophy) and Imagination (Fine Arts), to order his arrangement of books by subject, though with some modifications. The result is an order sometimes by subject, sometimes by chronology, "& sometimes a combination of both." Although he cataloged his library by subject, Jefferson shelved the books by size.

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