By GAIL FINEBERG
Four members of Congress exercised their congressional Library book-borrowing privileges for a few minutes on Thursday, Jan. 4, using items from the Library’s collections for their brief, private swearing-in ceremonies after they stood with other members of the 110th Congress on the House floor to take their official oaths of office.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) made history as the first Muslim elected to Congress. For his ceremonial swearing-in by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, he had requested use of a two-volume Quran that Thomas Jefferson had owned and sold to the Congress in 1815 and that had survived an 1851 fire that burned the Capitol and thousands of Library of Congress books.
The Librarian observed that Thomas Jefferson’s universal approach to collecting is reflected in the Library’s holdings. “Jefferson believed that there was no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer,” Billington said. “As the nation’s library, and as a symbol of the central role that free access to information plays in a knowledge-based democracy, the Library continues to collect internationally, on all subjects, and in more than 470 languages.”
“The Quran lived in the Capitol from 1815 until 1897, when the Library’s collections, including Jefferson’s library, were moved across the street to the new building [the Thomas Jefferson Building]. It is fitting that this Quran returned to the Capitol for this occasion,” said Mark G. Dimunation, chief of the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division, which holds the Thomas Jefferson Collection.
Billington and Dimunation briefed the press on the Library’s 18th-century Quran bearing Jefferson’s initials and then walked the boxed, velvet-wrapped volumes over to the Samuel Rayburn Room in the Capitol and delivered them to Ellison and his wife, Kim.
Reporting on this event were several of the country’s major television networks and newspapers, news wire services and some digital news magazines.
Three returning members also borrowed items from the Library for their ceremonial oaths. Reps. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), who was sworn in for the 13th time, and Brad Sherman, (D-Calif.), who took his sixth oath of congressional office, each posed with Pelosi and a Library copy of the first complete Hebrew Bible to be printed in America, in 1814.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) borrowed a King James version of the Bible from the Library’s general collections for her swearing-in. She was first elected to Congress in a special election on Aug. 29, 1989.
Early in December, Dimunation received a phone message from Ellison asking to use Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Quran. “Somebody had done some research,” he said. The detailed request asked for “Sowerby item number 1457” from the “Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson,” a five-volume work compiled with annotations by E. Millicent Sowerby and published by the Library, 1952-59.
According to Sowerby’s notations and Dimunation, British “orientalist” George Sale transcribed the Quran from its original Arabic into English and published the first edition in 1734. Jefferson’s two-volume copy was printed in 1764 (London: Hawes, Clarke, Collins and Wilcox).
“This was not a common text, but its translation and publication in the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment are not surprising,” Dimunation said. “Most religious texts were available then.”
He speculated that Jefferson acquired the volumes in about 1765, while he was studying law at the first law school at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. “His interest may have been in Arabic law, and the Quran is a code of law,” Dimunation said.
The division chief noted evidence of Jefferson’s ownership of this Quran. “Jefferson never placed bookplates in his books or wrote in them. He was a reader and took pride of ownership, so he did add his initials to the I and T signature pages [T before the printed I, which substituted for a J, and J following the T],” Dimunation said.
Jefferson sold his personal library of 6,487 books, including these two volumes, to Congress in 1815, after the Capitol and its library burned in an 1814 British raid on Washington. Another Capitol fire, on Christmas Eve 1851, destroyed nearly two-thirds of Jefferson’s books, but the Quran survived. The Library rebound the volumes in 1918, using brown morocco for the spines and marbled boards for the covers.
On Wednesday, Jan. 3, Mary Yarnall, head of the reference section in the Collections, Access and Loan Management (CALM) Division, referred Sherman’s request for a Hebrew Bible to Peggy Pearlstein, acting head of the Hebraic Section. Pearlstein thought immediately of the first complete Hebrew Bible printed in America, which was part of the Library’s 2004 exhibition “From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America.” She alerted Congressional Relations Specialist Stephen J. Kelley in the Congressional Relations Office (CRO) and together they worked with Sherman’s staff.
Accompanied by CRO staff member Susan Shaw and a Sherman office staff member, Pearlstein hand-carried the Hebrew Bible to Sherman’s swearing-in ceremony at 6 p.m. on Jan. 4.
Earlier that day, shortly before Levin’s swearing-in ceremony at 3:40 p.m., Pearlstein and two CRO staff members, Brynda Harris and Marlene Kaufmann, delivered the same Bible to Levin. That was a fast response to Levin’s request, which Harris received at 3:15 p.m.
According to the “From Haven to Home” exhibition catalog, this two-volume edition of the Biblia Hebraica, which was based on an earlier Amsterdam version and printed in Philadelphia in 1814, had the blessing of Jewish leaders as well as Christian clergyman, “reflecting both an early instance of interfaith cooperation and a period of religious renewal that emphasized Bible study in its original language.”
Ros-Lehtinen’s request to borrow a Bible arrived mid-afternoon Jan. 4 at the CALM Division. Reference Section staffers Teresa Baker and Christine Mills located a 1998 edition of “The Holy Bible, Old and New Testament in the King James Version,” according to the catalog record. A staff member from the congresswoman’s office retrieved the Bible from the loan office.
Adhering to Thomas Jefferson’s 18th-century vision of an enlightened, self-governing nation, the Library has followed his practice of acquiring, preserving and making accessible a universal collection.
Gail Fineberg is editor of The Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter.