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Today in History - January 30

Jefferson’s Library

On January 30, 1815, President James Madison approved an act of Congress appropriating $23,950 to purchase Thomas Jefferson’s library of 6,487 volumes.

“…there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”

Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Samuel H. Smith, September 21, 1814. Thomas Jefferson Papers

James Madison, fourth president of the United States, Pendleton’s Lithography, circa 1828. By Popular Demand: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present
Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, Pendleton’s Lithography, circa 1828. By Popular Demand: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present

After capturing Washington, D.C. in 1814, the British burned the U.S. Capitol, destroying the Library of Congress and its 3,000-volume collection. Thomas Jefferson, in retirement at Monticello, offered to sell his personal library to the Library Committee of Congress in order to rebuild the collection of the Congressional Library.

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to George Watterston (1783-1854), Memory Section of American Treasures of the Library of Congress

Jefferson’s library not only included over twice the number of volumes as had been destroyed, it expanded the scope of the library beyond its previous topics—law, economics, and history—to include a wide variety of subjects in several languages.

Anticipating the objection that his collection might be too comprehensive, he argued, “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.”

The Library of Congress, established on April 24, 1800, celebrated its bicentennial during the months from June 1999 through December 2000. The Library’s Bicentennial Commemoration launched a number of new Library initiatives including Local Legacies, a project which documented phenomena that helped to define various U.S. communities at the turn of the Millennium.

Jefferson’s Library, ca. 1993. Jefferson’s Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress

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