By JOHN Y. COLE
The Library of Congress's connections to Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) are close and important. He was the institution's "spiritual founder," and today the Library is the major repository of his books and papers.
Jefferson once proclaimed "I cannot live without books." During his presidency (1801-1809), he signed the act of Congress that provided for the appointment of a Librarian of Congress and gave Congress the power to establish the Library's rules and regulations. Throughout his presidency, he recommended books for the Library's collections, and he appointed the first two Librarians of Congress, John J. Beckley (1802-1807) and Patrick Magruder (1807-1815).
Jefferson's most important contribution, however, came later. In 1815, after the British destroyed the U.S. Capitol (where the Library was located), former President Jefferson sold his personal library of 6,487 volumes for $23,950 to the government to "recommence" the Library of Congress, forever expanding its scope and ambitions beyond those of a legislative library. The vast range of his interests, reflected in his library, determined the universal and diverse nature of the Library's future collections and activities. His argument that "there is ... no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer" became the rationale for justifying the Library's national and international roles. By purchasing Jefferson's library in 1815, Congress had acquired "an admirable substratum for a national library." Moreover, the Library of Congress used the classification system Jefferson devised for his personal library for the rest of the century.
Jefferson in the Bicentennial Commemoration
From the first discussions 10 years ago about celebrating the Library's Bicentennial, held in 1989, it was obvious that Jefferson and Jefferson-related projects would play a pivotal role.
Early in the decade, the Henry Luce Foundation gave the Library a $250,000 grant toward a major Jefferson exhibition. Scheduled to open to the public on April 24, 2000, the exhibition "Thomas Jefferson: Genius of Liberty," curated by Gerard W. Gawalt of the Manuscript Division, is a cornerstone of the Bicentennial commemoration. It will draw on the Library's unparalleled collection of Jefferson materials and will showcase a recreation of Jefferson's library.
In April, the Library announced the beginning of a worldwide search to find duplicates of volumes from Jefferson's library that were destroyed by another fire in the U.S. Capitol, on Christmas eve, 1851. As a Bicentennial "Gift to the Nation," Jerry Jones, owner and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys football team, and his wife, Gene, gave the Library $1 million to purchase the 897 missing volumes once they are located (see LC Information Bulletin, May 1999).
"American Treasures of the Library of Congress," the popular permanent exhibition that opened in 1997 in the Jefferson Building, owes much to Jefferson. It is organized according to the ordering of his personal library, which in turn was inspired by Francis Bacon's organization of knowledge: Memory (History); Reason (Philosophy); and Imagination (Fine Arts). One of the Library's treasures, Jefferson's "rough draft" of the Declaration of Independence, was featured when the exhibition opened and will be on display this summer from June to August. The exhibition section on Jefferson's library is always of great interest to visitors. "American Treasures" was supported by the Xerox Foundation.
The Library's unsurpassed collection of Jefferson's papers is being made available on the Library's American Memory Web site (www.loc.gov). New Bicentennial-related publications associated with Jefferson will include: Thomas Jefferson and the Education of a Citizen, edited by James Gilreath; The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of the Text, by Julian P. Boyd, revised edition edited by Mr. Gawalt; and a book accompanying the April 2000 exhibition, also edited by Mr. Gawalt.
Finally, the overall Bicentennial theme, "Libraries, Creativity, Liberty," is a Jeffersonian theme. It was chosen because the Library's Bicentennial Steering Committee wanted to connect the Library and its traditions with the democratic ideal espoused by Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers. Dr. Billington said in his preface to Jefferson's Legacy: "The active mind was central to Jefferson's concept of government. ... He believed that self-government depended on the free, unhampered pursuit of truth by an informed and involved citizenry. Today's Library of Congress epitomizes Jefferson's faith in learning and his practical determination to make democracy work."
The Library and Thomas Jefferson: The First 150 Years
The Library's Jeffersonian legacy was not highlighted between 1815, when his books arrived in Washington in horse-drawn wagons, and the early 1940s, during the administration of Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish. An exception was Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1864-1897), who built the Library of Congress into a national institution emphasizing a paraphrased Jeffersonian message: "there is almost no work, within the vast range of literature and science, which may not at some time prove useful to the legislature of a great nation." To this statement, Spofford added an appropriate public function: It was imperative that such a great national library collection be shared with all citizens, for the United States was "a republic which rests upon the popular intelligence."
The second exception was the gathering in 1898 of the remaining books from Jefferson's library into a special collection in the new Library building. The project was described in the 1898 Annual Report of Librarian of Congress John Russell Young (1897-1899).
MacLeish (1939-1944), prompted by the forthcoming celebration of the bicentennial of Jefferson's birth in 1943, restored Jefferson to a position of prominence among the Library's heroes. In recognition of the relationship "in which Jefferson stands to the Library of Congress," MacLeish dedicated the south reading room of the Library's new Adams Building (opened to the public in 1939) to Jefferson, commissioning appropriate murals and quotations from artist Ezra Winter. The murals were dedicated by the Attorney General, Francis Biddle, on Dec. 15, 1941, in ceremonies that, appropriately enough, also commemorated the sesquicentennial anniversary of the adoption of the Bill of Rights.
MacLeish was responsible for two key publishing projects: The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of the Text (1943) by Julian P. Boyd and the first steps in creating a complete catalog of Jefferson's 1815 library.
The Jefferson Bicentennial Exhibits, which opened April 12, 1943, included nine groups of materials -- displayed throughout the Library's two buildings at the time -- that reflected Jefferson's many interests. The 171-page "Catalogue," published in 1943, is now a collector's item. Other events were part of the celebration: a seminar on Thomas Jefferson with scholars and public figures and chaired by MacLeish; a concert of music "dear to Jefferson" by the Budapest String Quartet; a performance, in the Coolidge Auditorium of Sidney Kingsley's play about Jefferson, The Patriots; and an oration on Jefferson ("The Permanence of Jefferson") at the Library on April 13 by MacLeish's friend Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.
In his introduction to Frankfurter's talk, MacLeish vividly describes the essence of the Library of Congress-Thomas Jefferson relationship:
"If there were withdrawn from the Library of Congress as it now exists everything which grew from the roots Jefferson planted, and everything which relates to the spirit of Jefferson breathed, there would be little of its greatness left."
John Y. Cole is director of the Center for the Book. With Chief of Staff Jo Ann Jenkins, he is co-chair of the Library's Bicentennial Steering Committee.