By GAIL FINEBERG
The Library kicked off its Bicentennial Gifts to the Nation Project on April 14 with a news conference announcing a $1 million gift to replace books lost in an 1851 fire that burned nearly two-thirds of Thomas Jefferson's library, which Congress had bought for $23,950 in 1815.
Jerry Jones, owner and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, and his wife, Gene, presented their gift to the Library during a semiannual meeting of the Library's Madison Council, which they have supported for the past seven years.
Handing Dr. Billington the first book purchased with their gift, Hermes or a Philosophical Inquiry Concerning Universal Grammar, 2nd ed., 1765 (London), by James Harris, Mr. Jones noted that the Madison Council exists to promote private support for the Library, which will celebrate its Bicentennial in 2000 (www.loc.gov/bicentennial).
Mr. Jones, who was inspired by Dr. Billington's enthusiasm for the Library and its national treasures, explained that Madison Council members raise and give funds that supplement the Library's annual appropriations from Congress. For example, Madison Council gifts have enabled the Library to digitize materials for online distribution, purchase rare materials and promote scholarship.
"This building must be recognized," Mr. Jones said, glancing around the mahogany and gilt of the Librarian's formal office in the Jefferson Building. "This is where the real things are."
By lending high-profile support to the Library as well as the Dallas Cowboys, "We're saying, 'Let's all get in here when we can and support the Library of Congress,'" Mr. Jones said. "All the people of this country should put their heritage in this cultural institution."
Receiving the Joneses' gift, Dr. Billington thanked them and talked about the value of reconstituting Jefferson's original library, which was the "seed" of the Library's vast collections today. "Thanks to the extraordinary generosity of Gene and Jerry Jones we will be able to reconstruct ... the original library of this universal man [Jefferson], who, more than anyone, created the United States."
By studying the breadth of Jefferson's interests and knowledge, as reflected by the books in his library and his annotated and edited manuscripts, "you can see his mind at work," Dr. Billington said.
The Librarian briefed the press on the history of the Jefferson library. After the British burned the U.S. Capitol and with it Congress's library, on Aug. 24, 1814, Jefferson -- by then retired from presidential office and strapped for money -- offered to sell his personal library to Congress. Both houses consented -- after sharp debate -- and on Jan. 30, 1815, President James Madison signed a bill authorizing the purchase of 6,487 volumes for $23,950. Years later, at about 7:30 a.m. on Dec. 24, 1851, a fire broke out in the principal library room of the Capitol and destroyed approximately 35,000 of the Library's 55,000 volumes, including nearly two-thirds of the Jefferson collection. (The Library of Congress was in the Capitol Building from 1800 until 1897, when the Jefferson Building opened.)
Dr. Billington said that with the Joneses' gift the Library is launching a worldwide search via the Internet and antiquarian book dealers to locate titles and editions matching those of the 897 volumes still missing from the Jefferson Library. New acquisitions, together with books and manuscripts of Jefferson's already on hand at the Library, will be part of a major Jefferson exhibition in 2000, the Librarian said.
Using various catalogs, including one created by Jefferson himself, and principally a thorough five-volume work by E. Millicent Sowerby, curators of the Jefferson materials have created "A List of Desiderata" to aid in the search for the same titles and editions for replacements.
Said Rare Book and Special Collections Chief Mark Dimunation, "The task is to build in one year what took him a lifetime to build. ... Some items have not been seen at auction in 100 years."
Ms. Fineberg is editor of The Gazette, the Library's staff newspaper.