February 24, 2000 University of Virginia Donates Book to Library of Congress to Help Reconstitute Thomas Jefferson's Library

Press Contact: Library of Congress: Craig D'Ooge (202) 707-9189 | University of Virginia: Carol Wood (804) 924-6189

University of Virginia President John T. Casteen III today presented to the Library of Congress a replacement copy for one of the books missing from the personal collection of Thomas Jefferson that Congress purchased from Jefferson in 1815. As a Bicentennial project, the Library of Congress has been searching for a number of titles, of the same edition, to replace volumes that were destroyed by a fire in 1851 in the U.S. Capitol, where the Library was then housed. Nearly two-thirds of Jefferson's original collection of 6,487 volumes was lost. Over the years, the Library has managed to replace many volumes, but some 600 titles are still missing. The Library of Congress plans to exhibit the books as part of a major exhibition on Thomas Jefferson that opens April 24, the Library's 200th birthday.

At the suggestion of Albert H. Small, a member of both the University of Virginia's Board of Visitors and the Library of Congress's Madison Council, as well as a participant in the Monticello Cabinet, University librarians reviewed the list of missing volumes and found that the university held two copies of Constantin-Francois Volney's The Ruins: Or a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires, a translation from the French Les Ruines ou Meditations sur les Revolutions des Empires, published in 1796 by William A. Davis in New York. This translation of Volney's work is the same edition as the one Jefferson sold to Congress.

In accepting the volume, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said, "We are grateful to the University of Virginia for generously offering one of their own books to help us reconstitute Jefferson's library. We encourage other libraries to become inspired by the example of the University of Virginia and search their collections for Jefferson titles. We hope this grand project will revitalize public interest in the principle on which the Library of Congress has been built -- that free access to knowledge, by both the governing and the governed, is essential to democracy."

Karin Wittenborg, university librarian at the University of Virginia, said, "We feel a special affinity for the Library of Congress, beyond the simple fact that we are two research libraries with important collections relating to Jefferson and American history and literature. Both of our founding collections were personally selected by Thomas Jefferson."

Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections division at the Library of Congress, said that because of Jefferson's importance as the author of the Declaration of Independence and as the country's third president, it is important to know the sources that influenced Jefferson's thinking. Books were "his laboratory," Mr. Dimunation said.

In the case of Volney, a philosopher who taught at the Ecole Normal Superieure in Paris, he was an author well-known to Jefferson. During Jefferson's years in France, they likely met at the salon of Madame Helevetius, and Volney also visited Jefferson at Monticello the same year the English translation of Les Ruines appeared. That they shared many of the same views can be certain. In his work, Volney combines picturesque description with philosophical discussion, suggested by the ruins of the past, on the origin and growth of social, political, and religious institutions. Volney concludes his discussion in favor of the equality of all men before the law and the overthrow of tyranny, and from his comparison of religions, he infers the necessity of toleration and agnosticism in religious matters, where truth is not verifiable. These ideas are similar to those represented in Jefferson's writing of the Declaration of Independence and the statute of Virginia for religious freedom.

The rebuilding of Jefferson's library is one of many projects initiated by the Library of Congress to celebrate its 200th anniversary on April 24, 2000. Other projects include documenting local heritage in every state, symposia, exhibitions, special acquisitions, poetry readings, and the issuance of a commemorative stamp and coin during a National Birthday Party at the Library on April 24.


PR 00-017
ISSN 0731-3527