WASHINGTON – The Library of Congress is considered the world's greatest library,with more than a million objects in more than 450 languages,all thanks to one man's passion.
Thomas Jefferson was not only the 3rd president of the United States,author of the Declaration of Independence and an international statesman but also an avid collector of books.
“The entire reason this building exists and that the Library of Congress exists in the shape and form that it does today has very much to do with a single collection,which is Thomas Jefferson's private library,” said Mark Dimunation,chief of the library's rare books and special collections department.
Unfortunately,much of that original collection is lost forever.
At a lecture Wednesday,Dimunation spoke to about 20 people in the Southwest Gallery,just off the Great Hall of the Library of Congress in the Thomas Jefferson building,about the man whose legacy shaped American philosophy.
In 1814 Jefferson offered to sell his private collection,the largest is the Western Hemisphere,to Congress after the British had sacked the Capitol and burned the library.
Congress agreed after much partisan debate. Cyrus King,an anti-federalist member of Congress,said that this was Jefferson's way of getting his “infidel philosophy into the building.”
Jefferson's response not only quieted the opposition but still hangs around the necks of library employees today on the cord that holds their plastic ID cards: “There is,in fact,no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”
Jefferson sold his entire collection of 6,487 volumes – about 5,000 titles – to Congress for $23,950. While a large sum for the early 19th century,it was much less than the collection's actual worth.
That collection was so far-reaching that members of Congress could read about everything from law and religion to bee-keeping,shorthand technique and exotic plant cultivation.
In 1851,a Christmas Eve fire destroyed two-thirds of Jefferson's collection.
It wasn't until 1999,when Jerry and Gene Jones,the owners of the Dallas Cowboys,donated $1 million to re-create Jefferson's collection,that the library began to scour the world for copies of the thousands of volumes that had been lost.
Although the library has made great progress,and was able to display more than 4,300 titles two years ago in a public exhibit,many of the works Jefferson had acquired will never be found. The books are housed in a climate-controlled area with other rare books.
“We will never finish the work,I am sorry to say. There are a few books in Jefferson's collection that are very obscure or are much too important for us to compete on a realistic level to acquire,” Dimunation said.
One of the most prized collection pieces is Jefferson's second-hand copy of “The Federalist Papers.”
The book is so rare because it includes Jefferson's notes on who he believed penned each of the anonymous essays. In addition,the name of the book's previous owner – Mrs. Elizabeth Hamilton,Alexander's wife – is penned at the top of the title page just above that of the book's second owner,Jefferson.
“It was very interesting,” said 17-year-old Dylan Saphia after the discussion. “He didn't lecture,he just gave information.”
The high school junior from Santa Cruz,Calif.,said he was surprised to learn about the size of Jefferson's collection and was inspired to read “The Federalist Papers.”
“On a scale of one to 10,this was probably an eight,” Saphia said.