Jefferson and the Library of Congress

Picture by Flickr user mkoukoullis

Today, the Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, with over 147 million volumes, but it actually had a little bit of trouble getting off the ground. The Library of Congress was established in 1800, and by 1814 had around 3,000 volumes. Those books, though, went up in smoke when the British burned Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812, leaving Congress without a library – that is, until Thomas Jefferson stepped in.

By 1814, Thomas Jefferson was a little strapped for cash and, coincidentally, also had the largest collection of books in the country. Sensing an opportunity to remedy two issues (his financial situation and the condition of the Library’s collection), Jefferson wrote to Congress offering to sell his personal library to replace the destroyed Library of Congress. After a bit of debate (which, by the way, you can see for yourself in the U.S. Congressional Documents Library and on the Library of Congress’ site), Congress agreed and bought 6,487 volumes from Jefferson for $23, 950, more than doubling the previous size of the Library. Unfortunately, though, there was another fire in 1851 that destroyed two-thirds of Jefferson’s collection; what remains, though, forms the core of the Library of Congress’s current collection.

In 2008, the Library of Congress recreated Jefferson’s library – both physically in the library and online. The interactive portion of the online exhibition also recreates Jefferson’s original organization of the books, starting with the broad categories “Memory,” “Reason,” and “Imagination.”

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