Thomas Jefferson's Books at Washington University
11:45 am
Mon February 21, 2011

Books from Thomas Jefferson's personal collection found in Wash. U. library

Washington University in St. Louis, named for the first American president, announced this President’s Day, the discovery of a tie to another president.

The university recently learned that its libraries have a collection of books originally owned by Thomas Jefferson.

The 28 titles, including 74 volumes, were donated to Washington University in 1880, with no mention of their provenance.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman spoke with Anne Posega, the head of Washington University Libraries’ Special Collections (listen above).

--

So, which books are included in the find? A press release from the University explains:

  • Aristotle’s Politica, which was likely one of the last books Jefferson read before his death on July 4, 1826.
  • Architecture books used by Jefferson to design the University of Virginia, which, like Monticello, is recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site. Two of these volumes, Freart de Chambray’s Parallele de l’architecture antique avec la moderne and Andrea Palladio’s Architecture de Palladio, contenant les cinq ordres d'architecture contain a few notes and calculations made by Jefferson.
  • A small scrap of paper with Greek notes in Jefferson’s hand tucked in a volume of Plutarch’s Lives.

We also have a pseudo-timeline for you to illustrate the discovery process, using information from the press release:

The Donation

July 4, 1826 - Thomas Jefferson dies.

1829 - Jefferson's books are auctioned off after his death to settle debts on his estate, Monticello. There are no known surviving records of the buyers, but a letter from Jefferson’s grandson-in-law, Joseph Coolidge, included a detailed listing of books he and his wife Ellen Wayles Coolidge wished to purchase from the sale.

1880 - A newspaper article from this year explains that the Coolidge family donated their library to Washington University - which, at that time, contained Jefferson's personal books - though this fact was not disclosed to the University by the donors.

The Find

- It was the 1880 newspaper article that tipped off International Center for Jefferson Studies scholar Ann Lucas Birle, who found the books.

- Birle then shared the article with her colleague, Endrina Tay, who has been tracking down all of the books Jefferson owned, read and recommended during his lifetime.

Putting It All Together

Tracking the Books Down - At Washington University, rare books curator Erin Davis and assistant archivist Miranda Rectenwald tracked down the books donated by the Coolidge family, which since had been dispersed among the library’s holdings, with the help of a ledger dating to the turn of the 20th century that cataloged the collection.

Authentication - Tay, who is building a publicly accessible inventory of Jefferson’s libraries, was able to authenticate the books by identifying the presence of Jefferson’s distinctive handwritten ownership mark in these books.

For even more: Check out this morning's TODAY show on NBC. Birle, along with Shirley Baker, Vice Chancellor for Scholarly Resources and dean of University Libraries at Washington University discuss the books and their discovery here in St. Louis.

(Post updated at 2:42 p.m. on Feb. 21, 2011 to include conversation with Anne Posega, the head of Washington University Libraries’ Special Collections)