May 5, 2015 "Out of the Ashes: A New Library for Congress and the Nation" Exhibit Opens May 8

Press Contact: Donna Urschel (202) 707-1639
Public Contact: Cheryl Regan (202) 707-3610

In celebration of Thomas Jefferson’s sale of his personal library to Congress 200 years ago, the Library of Congress will open the exhibit “Out of the Ashes: A New Library for Congress and the Nation” on May 8.

Featuring eight items, the small exhibit is adjacent to the ongoing major exhibition “Thomas Jefferson’s Library” in the Southwest Pavilion on the second floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First St. S.E., Washington, D.C. “Out of the Ashes” starts on Friday, May 8 and runs through May 2016. It is free and open to the public from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

On Aug. 24, 1814, during the War of 1812, British forces set fire to the unfinished U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The congressional library, then housed in the Capitol’s north wing, was destroyed. To re-establish the library, former president Jefferson offered to sell his personal collection of books—the largest and most comprehensive in the United States at that time. In 1815, Congress purchased Jefferson’s 6,487 volumes for $23,950.

The acquisition of Jefferson’s books, which covered numerous subjects, is the foundation of the modern Library of Congress and its comprehensive collection policies. Discussing the depth and breadth of his library and its usefulness to Congress, Jefferson said, “... there is, in fact, no subject to which a member may not have occasion to refer.”

Of the original 6,487 volumes that Jefferson sold to Congress in 1815, only about 2,000 remain following another fire that started in a faulty chimney flue on Dec. 24, 1851 and spread through the congressional library housed in the Capitol. These original 2,000 books, plus replacement copies acquired through a special search, now constitute the ongoing exhibition “Thomas Jefferson’s Library.”

Highlights from “Out of the Ashes” include Jefferson’s inventory list of books in his library that were being sold to Congress and Jefferson’s May 8, 1815 letter to Samuel Harrison Smith, founder of the National Intelligencer, saying “Our tenth and last wagon load of books goes off today ... and an interesting treasure is added to your city ... unquestionably the choicest collection of books in the US and I hope it will not be without some general effect on the literature of the country.” Another highlight is Jefferson’s June 10, 1815 letter to friend and former President John Adams, in which he famously says “I cannot live without books.” In November 2015, the eight items on exhibit will be replaced, for preservation reasons, with nine different items.

Appropriately, as a tribute to Jefferson’s legacy and his lifelong passion for books, his statement “I cannot live without books” is the theme of this year’s Library of Congress National Book Festival, to be held Sept. 5, 2015 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.

The Library of Congress, the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution and the largest library in the world, holds more than 160 million items in various languages, disciplines and formats. The Library serves the U.S. Congress and the nation both on-site in its reading rooms on Capitol Hill and through its award-winning website at


PR 15-078
ISSN 0731-3527