Thomas Jefferson's library

Hard-working volunteers have recently entered Thomas Jefferson’s personal library into LibraryThing. The U.S. Congress purchased Jefferson’s library in 1815 to replace to the library Congress lost when the British Army burned the Capitol in 1814.[1] Thus Jefferson’s library on LibraryThing documents the library that formed Congress’s new library in 1815.

Although Jefferson was at the forefront of intellectual and political life of his time, his library contained rather old books. In 1815, 90% of his library books were printed more than a decade earlier. Half of his library books were printed more than 35 years earlier, that is, prior to 1779. In terms of Jefferson’s life (he was 72 years old in 1815), half the books in his library were printed before he reached 36 years of age. The formation of the U.S., the French Revolution, the rapid growth in book production, and Jefferson’s two terms as president did not put a large share of books into his library.[2]

Jefferson’s books were old in relation to movements in the book trade. In the U.S. at the beginning of the nineteenth century, book sellers kept a print edition for sale for perhaps a decade.[3] In both Britain and the U.S., book production, particularly that of fiction, grew strongly relative to macroeconomic trends from about 1780. In contrast, the number of books per publication year in Jefferson’s library trends downward from the mid 1780s.

The publication dates of books in Jefferson’s library indicate that as he grew older, he acquired a larger share of books addressing current affairs and applied technology. The table below gives the median publication dates of Jefferson’s books by book categories. Apart from newspapers, agriculture formed the most current category. That’s consistent with Jefferson’s interest in fostering an agricultural nation of yeoman farmers. The most dated category consisted of ecclesiastical law and history. Human efforts to build a city of God did not interest Jefferson. His library also show relatively little interest in new developments in poetry and fine arts (Romanticism) and in fiction (novels). Jefferson, in short, was a founding policy wonk.

Categories of Books
in Thomas Jefferson’s Library, 1815
Catogory of Books # Titles Median Pub. Year
Newspapers 47 1797
Agriculture 133 1795
Medicine 141 1791
Politics 1194 1790
Technical Arts 131 1788
Natural Philosophy 189 1786
Mathematics 123 1784
Astronomy 36 1770
Geography 335 1768
Polygraphical 44 1768
Tales and Fables 73 1766
Religion 260 1764
Ethics and Morals 211 1762
Law 654 1762
History 550 1761
Language 261 1760
Fine Arts 88 1757
Poetry 274 1756
Ecclesiastical 44 1700

Compared to when it purchased books for its library in 1800, Congress paid a higher price for older books when it purchased Jefferson’s library. In 1800, Congress paid $2.97 per book for 740 books that it purchased from a London bookseller. This price includes the cost of packaging and shipping the books from London. The bookseller wrote:

we earnestly hope the books will arrive perfectly safe, great care having been taken in packing them. We judged it best to send trunks rather than boxes, which after their arrival would have been of little or no value. Several of the books sent were only to be procured second-handed, and some of them, from their extreme scarcity, at very advanced prices. We have in all cases sent the best copies we could obtain and charged the lowest prices possible.[4]

In 1815, Congress paid Jefferson $3.69 per volume for 6487 volumes, plus at least an additional $0.10 per volume for packing and shipping from Monticello, Virginia.[5] Adjusted for inflation, this price is about 20 cents higher per volume than the price per volume for the books purchased in 1800. Apparently all but several of the books purchased in 1800 were new books, which probably means that they had been printed within the previous decade. In contrast, 90% of Jefferson’s books were printed more than a decade earlier.

Older, higher priced books are not necessarily worse than newer, lower-priced books. Older books might be more scarce than newer books, and hence more valuable. Book prices varied greatly depending on the size of the book, the quality of its binding, the paper used, and engravings included in the book. Average price and median age are important descriptions of a collection of books, not inverse measures of the attractiveness of purchasing a collection.

Congress’s purchase of Jefferson’s library was quite controversial. One Congressman opposed the bill to purchase the Jefferson’s library with this argument:

the library contained irreligious and immoral books, works of the French philosophers, who caused and influenced the volcano of the French Revolution, which had desolated Europe and extended to this country. [The Congressman stated that he] was opposed to a general dissemination of that infidel philosophy, and of the principles of a man [Jefferson] who had inflicted greater injury on our country than any other, except Mr. Madison. The bill would put $23,900 into Jefferson’s pocket for about 6,000 books, good, bad, and indifferent, old, new, and worthless, in languages which many can not read, and most ought not; which is true Jeffersonian, Madisonian philosophy, to bankrupt the Treasury, beggar the people, and disgrace the nation.[6]

Representatives also put forward less partisan reasons for not approving the bill to purchase the library:

Others, among whom were a number of the political and personal friends of Mr. Jefferson, opposed the bill on the ground of the scarcity of money, and the necessity of appropriating it to purposes more indispensable than the purchase of a library; the probable insecurity of such a library placed here; the high price to be given for this collection; its miscellaneous and almost exclusively literary (instead of legal and historical) character, etc. [7]

The bill to purchase Jefferson’s library was narrowly approved: 81 votes for, 71 votes against.

The accumulation of knowledge doesn’t happen automatically. Jefferson’s library testifies to the personal effort and political controversy associated with accumulating knowledge in the early nineteenth-century. Many signs in the twenty-first century indicate that personal effort and political controversies remain at the center of knowledge accumulation.

Additional data notes:

I calculated the publication year statistics given above by extracting the Jefferson library from LibraryThing, cleaning it slightly, and recoding the (first) category for each book. Here’s a year-by-year summary of the publication dates and book counts. For more detail, here are the individual records with the tab-delimited fields author, title, publication year, original category, and recoded category. For records that included a publication year range, the year in this dataset is the average of the given range. For years that included a “-” (such as “178-“), I’ve replaced the dash was the midpoint of the dashed range. The recoded categories are historically appropriate terms, but are not necessarily consistent with Jefferson’s hierarchical organization of categories.

The dataset excludes 101 records that do not include a publication year. These records do not appear to have a strong publication-year bias. Given the large total number of dated records (4788), excluding a 102-record sample with even some date bias probably wouldn’t effect aggregate statistics much. Note, however, that the LibraryThing Jefferson stat page gives an average publication year of 1754. I calculate an average year of 1756. If the LibraryThing average uses a zero-value for records with no publication year, that might account for the lower LibraryThing average.

The median is a more easily interpretable summary statistic for publication years. The average can depend significantly on a few outliers, e.g. a few very old books. I suggest that LibraryThing replace on its member stat page the “average” publication year line with a “50% of your books were printed before” line.

As with any data source, you should crosscheck and evaluate the datasets I have shared for possible mistakes. Sharing data helps to advance knowledge, and I encourage everyone to do so.

More historical data on libraries.

Reference notes:

[1] Some evidence indicates that many books were not destroyed in the fire, but were lost after being removed from the building in 1814. See Johnston (1904) pp. 66-7. For another example of losing valuable federal government property in a nineteenth century fire, see this discussion of the Smithsonian fire of 1865.

[2] When Jefferson was President, he suggested books to be purchased for the library of Congress. See Johnston (1904) p. 37. Thus government purchases may have substituted for Jefferson’s personal purchases. Note also that some of Jefferson’s books may not have been included in the library he sold to Congress in 1815. Jefferson described his library as containing “between nine and ten thousand volumes.” See Johnston (1904) p. 70. The library he sold to Congress consisted of 6,487 volumes.

[3] Amory (2000) p. 198.

[4] Johnston (1904) p. 24, quoting a letter apparently from Cadell & Davies, the London bookseller. See id. pp. 24-5 for the total cost. The items procured for that sum probably also included three maps.

[5] On packing and shipping costs, see id. p. 104.

[6] Id. p. 86, quoting Representative Cyrus King of Massachusetts.

[7] Id., general text. Some argued that Jefferson’s library was worth $50,000; others stated that such a library “might be bought in any of the large cities for half the money.”


Amory, Hugh (2000) “A Note on Imports and Domestic Production,” in Hugh Amory and David D. Hall, The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)

Johnston, William Dawson (1904), History of the Library of Congress : volume I, 1800-1864 (Washington: GPO).

3 thoughts on “Thomas Jefferson's library”

  1. In discussion on SHARP-L, Sabrina Baron noted that Mark Dimunation, who curates Rare Books at the Library of Congress, is leading a study of Thomas Jefferson’s library. He gave a paper on Jefferson’s library at the September meeting of the Washington Area Group for Print Culture Studies. Keep an eye out for his forthcoming book on this subject.

    Some participants in the SHARP-L discussion were interested in the time span and locations of Jefferson’s book collecting. From Jefferson’s letter to his friend Samuel Harrison Smith, dated Sept. 14, 1814, and printed in Johnston (1904) p. 69-71:

    I have been fifty years making it, and have spared no pains, opportunity or expense, to make it what it is. While residing in Paris, I devoted every afternoon I was disengaged, for a summer or two in examining all the principal bookstores, turning over every book with my own hand, and putting by everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable in every science. Besides this, I had standing orders during the whole time I was in Europe, on its principal book-marts, particularly Amsterdam, Frankfort, Madrid, and London, for such works relating to America as could not be found in Paris. So that, in that department particularly, such a collection was made as probably can never again be effected, because it is hardly probable that the same opportunities, the same time, industry, perseverance and expense, with the same knowledge of the bibliography of the subject would again happen to be in concurrence. During the same period, and after my return to America, I was led to procure, also, whatever related to the duties of those in the high concerns of the nation.

    I offered two wishes for Mark Dimunation and his team:

    1. Compare Jefferson’s library to the books previously held in Congress’s library. The list of books purchased from Caddell and Davis in 1801 exists, as do catalogues for the collection prior to 1815. Comparative analysis could be quite interesting.
    2. Add the comparator list/catalogue to LibraryThing. Putting Library of Congress photographs on flickr has been a huge success and has created much additional appreciation for what the Library of Congress does. Participating in LibraryThing could have a similar effect.

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