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 to Samuel H. Smith, September 21, 1814. Series 1: General Correspondence, 1651-1827. Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606 to 1827. Manuscript Division
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.
Jefferson’s library not only included more than 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. Divided into the categories Memory, Reason, and Imagination—which Jefferson translated to “History,” “Philosophy,” and “Fine Arts”—today, Thomas Jefferson’s library is part of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division and is currently on public exhibit in the Thomas Jefferson Building.
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.”
- For more information about the Library of Congress and its history, visit About the Library. In particular, see History of the Library, Jefferson’s Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress, and the webcast, A History of the Library of Congress.
- Today, Thomas Jefferson’s library is one of the Library’s “special collections.” For more information, visit the home page of the Rare Book & Special Collections Reading Room and read About the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
- View The act authorizing the purchase of Jefferson’s library, January 30, 1815, in the Statutes at Large, and Thomas Jefferson’s library: a catalog with the entries in his own order, edited by James Gilreath, Douglas L. Wilson, an online edition of a printed catalog to Thomas Jefferson’s collection.
- Thomas Jefferson arranged his books into three categories: Memory, Reason and Imagination. American Treasures of the Library of Congress, an online exhibition, follows his subject arrangements in organizing its contents, adding a special category for America’s Top Treasures. Among the latter are Jefferson’s original rough draft of the Declaration of Independence.
- Peruse Thomas Jefferson’s correspondence, commonplace books, financial account books, and manuscript writings in the Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606 to 1827, a collection which consists of approximately 27,000 documents. An essay by Joseph J. Ellis on Thomas Jefferson and a Timeline of Jefferson’s life are part of the special presentation material which accompany this online collection.
- Search Today in History on the term library for more information related to the Library of Congress and other libraries, including, the Library Company of Philadelphia and the many libraries endowed by Andrew Carnegie.