Monday, February 28, 2011

Thomas Jefferson's library: lost books hiding in plain sight

Jefferson stamp, 1870

In the literary games of hide-and-seek that keep readers, reaearchers and historians busy, discovering the books that belonged to Presidents can be a special find. When the books themselves are discovered hiding in plain sight waiting only for a chance discovery, they form an unexpected piece of the continuing historical puzzle.

A recent article by Sam Roberts in the New York Times describes the discovery of 78 books that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson and which, through time, auction and debt, had been sold and subsequently lost to history. The books in Latin, Greek and French are described as having been acquired by Jefferson in the ten years before he died in 1826. The article reports one researcher found leads performing a simple Google search. The Times article includes a link to the complete list of book titles.

A literary detective story that began 18 months ago and was advanced through a chance reading of an 1880 edition of The Harvard Register has led researchers from the Jefferson Library at Monticello to a trove of books that were among the last ones that Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s most bibliophilic president, collected and read in the decade before he died.

The 28 titles in 74 volumes were discovered recently in the collection of Washington University in St. Louis, immediately elevating its library to the third largest repository of books belonging to Jefferson after the Library of Congress and the University of Virginia.

... The Washington University library learned of the Jefferson bonanza a few months ago from Endrina Tay, project manager for the Thomas Jefferson’s Libraries project at Monticello, the former president’s home near Charlottesville, Va., a National Historic Landmark. She has been working since 2004 to reconstruct Jefferson’s collection and make the titles and supplemental reference materials available online.

... The retirement collection is the least known of Jefferson’s libraries and one in which classics were represented in disproportionately greater numbers than politics and the law. He cataloged all 1,600 books according to “the faculties of the human mind,” like memory, reason and imagination, and then classified them further. Many were in French or Italian.

“Currently Monticello and the University of Virginia have the largest concentrations of books from the retirement library,” said Kevin J. Hayes, an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and the author of The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson. “This new find would put Washington University among them. The question I would like to answer is: Do they contain any marginalia? Sometimes Jefferson wrote in his books; his marginalia would enhance both the scholarly and the cultural value of the books immeasurably.”

The answer is yes. Jefferson initialed his books (to affirm his ownership), often corrected typographical errors in the texts and also occasionally wrote marginal notes or comments about the substance. Researchers are combing the newly discovered collection to find such notations.

... Ms. Tay found letters suggesting that Joseph Coolidge of Boston, who met one of Jefferson’s granddaughters at Monticello and later married her, submitted lists of the books he wanted to buy.

... Ms. Tay also found an annotated auction catalog with the letter “C” written next to a number of items, which seemed to indicate that Coolidge had bid successfully. ...

The discovery that the 3,000 books in the Coolidge collection included 74 that once belonged to Jefferson means that about half of his retirement library has been accounted for. It has also prompted a search by librarians at Washington University to determine whether any other books in the Coolidge collection had been Jefferson’s.

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