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Lesson Plan Thomas Jefferson's Library: Making the Case for a National Library

Students examine a letter written by Thomas Jefferson and identify techniques he used to persuade Congress to purchase his personal library. Students consider a selection of Jefferson's books and then write their own persuasive letters urging the books' purchase, while considering the question: "Why would Congress need this book to shape or govern the nation?"


Students will be able to:

  • identify examples of persuasive writing;
  • create a persuasive argument; and
  • discuss the role of knowledge and learning in the activities of Congress.

Time Required

Two classes

Lesson Preparation

Print out primary sources from the Jefferson's Library Book Gallery and post items around the classroom or direct students to the gallery. Remember to print out all pages of the sheet music. Read definitions of primary and secondary sources in Using Primary Sources and discuss with students as necessary.


Have these materials ready before the activity:


Background for the Lesson

When the British burned the Capitol during the War of 1812, Congress lost its entire library in the flames. Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend, publisher Samuel H. Smith, asking him to offer Congress his personal library in replacement. Jefferson promised to accept any price set by Congress for his collection of more than 6000 books. Anticipating that some members of Congress might object to the notion of purchasing so many books not directly related to the business of legislating, Jefferson commented, "there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer." After much debate, Congress purchased his library for $23,950 in 1815. Thus, the Library of Congress has grown from the seed of Jefferson's private library, universal in subject matter and format, into a national library that symbolizes the central role that free access to information plays in a knowledge-based democracy.

Additional Resources

Lesson Procedure

Activity One (One Class Period)

  1. Students will analyze Jefferson's letter to Samuel Smith. (Note: Do not identify the document). Explain that students will be taking a close look at an important historical document and speculating on its purpose. Display or distribute copies of Thomas Jefferson's letter to Samuel Smith dated September 21, 1814. (PDF, 1.03 MB)
    • Ask students to examine the document closely. Possible questions include:
      • How would you objectively describe what you're seeing?
      • What do you notice about the physical properties of the letter?
    • Encourage students to speculate about the document, its creator, and its context. Possible questions include:
      • Are there any indications of ownership or time period?
      • Who do you think wrote this? To whom was it written?
      • What do you notice about word choice, tone and writing style?
      • Do you think this is a public or private document?
      • What do you think this is about? Find words or phrases that give clues.
      • What do you think was the author's purpose in writing this?
    • Help students think about their personal responses to the source.
      • What surprises you about what you're seeing?
      • What do you want to know about this document?
  2. Give students background information about Thomas Jefferson's library or have them read the first three paragraphs of Jefferson's Library.
  3. Discuss Jefferson's statement, "I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer."
  4. Hand out Analyzing Persuasive Techniques (PDF, 33 KB). Model how to use this graphic organizer by identifying and discussing one example of the persuasive techniques Jefferson used in the letter:
    • Text: "I learn from the newspapers that the Vandalism of our enemy has triumphed at Washington over science as well as the arts, by the destruction of the public library with the noble edifice in which it was deposited."
    • Technique: Jefferson engaged the reader by establishing a context (telling what happened) and exciting interest (with words and phrases "the Vandalism of our enemy," "triumphed," and "destruction of the public library.")
  5. Have students work individually or in groups to locate additional examples in Jefferson's letter and record them on their Analyzing Persuasive Techniques (PDF, 33 KB) graphic organizer.
  6. Have each student group share their examples with the rest of the class.

Activity Two (One Class Period)

  1. Explain that students are going to look at some of the books from Jefferson's library, with Thomas Jefferson's quotation in mind: "I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer."
  2. Divide students into 3 groups, assigning each group one of the following categories while explaining that Jefferson organized his library into these broad areas:
    • Memory (Civil History – American and foreign; and Natural History – the sciences)
    • Reason (Philosophy, including ethics, religion, law, politics, mathematics, geography)
    • Imagination (Fine Arts, including architecture, music, poetry, gardening, logic)
  3. Provide each group of students with printed or online access to the books in their assigned category from Jefferson's Library Book Gallery.
  4. Explain that students will explore their books as a group and prepare persuasive arguments for why Congress should purchase these books. The following information should be assembled:
    • Details, including title, author, date, illustrations
    • At least one reason why books on this subject are needed by Congress (E.g., need science to make good decisions about the environment)
    • A specific example related to the topic of each book ( E.g., need to know about chemistry to decide whether to support a new law on pollution)
    The focus question for this group activity is:
    "Why would Congress need this book to shape or govern the nation?"
  5. Each group will make a 5-minute presentation to the class on their books and arguments.
  6. Have each student select a book and write a letter to Congress arguing why it should purchase that book. They may refer to Analyzing Persuasive Techniques (PDF, 33 KB) when composing the letter.


  • Divide the class into two groups and role play a Congressional debate on the purchase of Jefferson's library; one group defends purchasing the library but selling off all the books that aren't government-related or are in a foreign language; the other group defends purchasing and keeping the entire collection intact.
  • Discuss how Jefferson's life and work might have been influenced by these books.
  • Discuss the role that free and unrestrained access to information plays in our modern democracy. Afterward, allow time for students to explore the Library of Congress website to find out who is permitted to enter the Library's onsite reading rooms in Washington, D.C. and do research using the historical items in its collections. How do you think this compares to libraries and museums elsewhere?

Lesson Evaluation

  • Teacher observation of collaborative work.
  • Teacher observation of critical thinking.
  • Evaluation of whether students have included purpose, audience, evidence, concerns, counter arguments and conclusions.