Thomas Jefferson's oft-quoted remark that there was "no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer" has become the basis for the greatest storehouse of knowledge ever assembled by mankind.
When he sold his personal library to Congress, a collection that spanned the universe of 18th century learning, it became the seed of the Library of Congress, which has grown to more than 100 million items.
"Thomas Jefferson and the Library of Congress" is an exhibition honoring the third president and supporter of the Library, who was born 250 years ago, on April 13. According to curator Andrew J. Cosentino, who was assisted in the exhibition planning by James W. Gilreath of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Gerard W. Gawalt of the Manuscript Division and Eva Shade of Photoduplication Service, "Jefferson's library introduced a wealth of cultural, scientific and artistic material to the Library's collections, and, with its 6,487 volumes, more than doubled the number of items previously held by the Library.
"But Jefferson had an interest in the Library of Congress even before he sold his library in 1815," he added. One of the items in the exhibition is an 1802 letter of Jefferson's to Sen. Abraham Baldwin of Georgia, chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library, suggesting a classification system for the books that had already been bought by Congress. In addition to his many distinctions, Jefferson might also be referred to as one of the Library's recommending officers, for he was also making recommendations for book purchases.
The 1802 "Catalogue of the Library of Congress" is a "simple classification system. At that time, Jefferson felt that nothing complicated was necessary," said Dr. Cosentino. The system that Jefferson had adopted for his own collection, however, and which accompanied the sale of his books to Congress, was much more complicated. It was drawn from Francis Bacon's division of the sciences into 44 categories, or "chapters," and Jefferson acknowledged his debt to Bacon. The system worked so well that the Library used it until the 1890s.
Jefferson appointed the first two Librarians of Congress: John Beckley (1802) and Patrick Magruder (1807), whose letter from the president informing him of his nomination is displayed.
Seven years later, the Capitol, then home of the Library, was severely burned. As a consequence of Congress's loss of most of its Library, Jefferson offered to sell his in an 1814 letter to Samuel H. Smith. "There was a good deal of debate about whether to purchase it and some pretty nasty comments about the library -- that it was ungodly, atheistic and immoral, as the National Intelligencer said in its Oct. 25, 1814, edition.
"No price was set by Jefferson," said Dr. Cosentino. He allowed Congress to set the amount for the 6,487 volumes -- slightly less than $24,000. "A number of people wrote to Congress saying it was worth far more than that, so they got a good deal, not only in terms of quantity but in the range of the materials."
Prior to the fire at the Library, Jefferson had thought of willing his collection to a "national university," should one be established or to one that he later thought of establishing (the University of Virginia). "He went through an evolution of thought" on the disposition of the library, said Dr. Cosentino.
After much debate, in late January 1815, Congress decided to purchase the collection for $23,950. The vote was far from unanimous. Members from New England were against the purchase, and the Mid-Atlantic states were divided. But the South's desire to purchase what was likely the most all-encompassing collection in North America tilted the votes toward acquisition. A letter from Treasury Secretary Alexander Dallas to Jefferson, dated Feb. 21, 1815, and telling him of Congress's decision, is on display.
The books arrived by 10 horse-drawn wagons from the retired president's estate, Monticello, in Charlottesville, Va. A map shows the route that Jefferson suggested the wagons take over the state's tobacco roads and the route actually traveled, which varies somewhat.
(Visitors to Monticello now see duplicate copies of the volumes once owned by Jefferson. His penchant for orderliness is evident in his arrangement of the books by subject and by size on the shelves.)
Because the Capitol was still under reconstruction when the books arrived in May 1815, they were shelved in a space on the third floor of Blodget's Hotel, about seven blocks from the Capitol. Although built as a hotel, the building served many other purposes. In addition to the Library, Blodget's housed the House and Senate, the committees, the General and City Post Offices and the Patent Office.
In December 1818, the books were moved to the attic of the north, or Senate, wing of the as yet unfinished Capitol. There they remained until they were removed in 1824 to specially designed, beautiful quarters in the center of the west side of the Capitol, overlooking the Mall.
In 1825 a fire in the Library burned some books, but another blaze, in 1851, did considerably more damage. Two-thirds of the 75,000- volume Library was destroyed. Only about 2,500 of Jefferson's volumes escaped destruction. The National Intelligencer of Dec. 25, 1851, describes a fire of such intensity that it caused "the paint and stone of the pillars in the west front of the Capitol to scale off to a quarter of an inch in places."
The exhibition also features a letter written by Librarian John Silva Meehan to Sen. James Alfred Pearce, chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library, explaining the losses -- not only books but paintings, sculptures and medals. "Even then, the Library had a multifaceted collection," said Dr. Cosentino.
After several congressional appropriations for the repairs and purchase of replacement books, the Library was housed in temporary quarters in the Capitol in March 1853, and on July 6, 1853, Meehan formally moved into the new room. All who visited remarked on its beauty, including the British geologist Sir Charles Lyell, who called it "the most beautiful room in the world."
The Library remained in the Capitol until 1897, when its own quarters, now called the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Building, were completed.
The remainder of the exhibition reflects the universality of interests of the man whose spirit still guides the nation's library in its acquisitions policies; for example, the works of Montesquieu, the Complete Collection of All the Laws of Virginia Now in Force, the Justinianic Code, The Art of Fingering the Harpsichord by Pasquali, The History of the Five Indian Nations of Canada, Memoirs of Socrates, A Catalogue of ... Known & Naturalized Plants ... and L'Archittetura di Alberti.
These books and many others of Jefferson help explain how the Library of Congress has become an institution dedicated to the ideal that there is "no subject to which a member of Congress [as well as the public] may not have occasion to refer."
"Thomas Jefferson and the Library of Congress" is on display in the Mumford Foyer, sixth floor, Madison Building. Exhibition hours are Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m. - 9:30 p.m., Saturday 8:30 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Sunday 1 - 5 p.m. through July 5, 1993.