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Reconstructing Jefferson's Libraries

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Jefferson organized his library following Francis Bacon’s tripartite method, transposing “Memory,” “Reason,” and “Imagination,” into the more modern categories of “History,” “Philosophy,” and “Fine Arts.” He further subdivided these categories into 44 “chapters.” Titles in the Jefferson Architecture Collection primarily fall into the “Fine Arts” heading, with particular focus on “Architecture” (chapter 32) and “Gardening” (chapter 31).   Although he owned many books on painting, sculpture, and aesthetics, architecture and gardening were closest to his heart.

Several lists of Jefferson's collections have been lost over the years, presenting a challenge for scholars trying to recreate Jefferson's library. [1] Three major bibliographies (listed below) have emerged as particularly valuable sources regarding Jefferson's architecture books.

  By far the most useful tool in this effort is The Thomas Jefferson's Libraries Project, managed by the Jefferson Library at Monticello. This database maintains and updates information about books Jefferson owned, desired to own, knewabout or recommended to others at different times in his life. 

Fiske Kimball

Clarence Ward used Fiske Kimball's 1916 Thomas Jefferson, Architect (OBIS record) to build the Art Library's Thomas Jefferson Architectural Books Collection. Fiske Kimball (1888-1955) was a highly influential architectural historian, credited with creating the field of American architectural history and establishing Jefferson's prominent place in the field.[2] In the bibliography Kimball assembled the various books on architecture and gardening which Jefferson owned at one time or another, with the dates of their acquisition and of their disposal by him or his heirs, so far as these dates are ascertainable. [3] Kimball states that to know what architectural books were at hand is particularly important in Jefferson's case on account of his dependence on books for his inspiration.

Millicent Sowerby

The standard reference for Jefferson's 1815 collection is Millicent Sowerby's massive Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson (1952-9). Sowerby painstakingly compiled this 4,931-item bibliography from lists in the Library of Congress and from Jefferson's letters. The project was intended for Jefferson's bicentennial in 1943, but was not completed until 16 years later.[4]

Mark Dimunation, chief of the Library of Congress' Rare Book and Special Collections division, called Sowerby's Catalogue the greatest bibliography of the 20th century.[5] Sowerby's bibliography is the foundation of the Library of Congress' re-creation of Jefferson's library

William O'Neal

Thomas Jefferson created an extensive bibliography of fine art books for the library at the University of Virginia. Jefferson himself designed the buildings for the University, and saw his buildings as valuable educational examples. Ray W. Frantz writes that ...the University's holdings in architectural books and the physical aspect of the University were to reinforce one another...[6]

William O'Neal's A Fine Arts Library: Jefferson's Selections for the University of Virginia (1976) is based on the list prepared by Jefferson and his secretary, Nicholas Trist, in 1825, and has been further checked against the University's 1828 printed library catalog.

 
Jane Sandberg, Oberlin College Art Library, May 11, 2011
[1] Mark Dimunation. The Whole of Recorded Knowledge: Jefferson as Collector and Reader (paper presented at The Libraries, Leadership & Legacy of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Boston, Mass., June 21-27, 2009. [2] Richard Guy Wilson. "Kimball, Fiske." In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, (accessed April 19, 2011). [3] Fiske Kimball, Thomas Jefferson, architect; original designs in the collection of Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, Junior.... (1916), p. 90-101. [4] Mark Dimunation. The Whole of Recorded Knowledge: Jefferson as Collector and Reader (paper presented at The Libraries, Leadership & Legacy of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Boston, Mass., June 21-27, 2009, (accessed April 19, 2011). [5] Fineberg, Gail. "Thomas Jefferson’s Library." June, 2008. (accessed April 21, 2011). [6] O'Neal, William B. A Fine Arts Library: Jefferson's Selections for the University of Virginia Together with His Architectural Books at Monticello: an Exhibition Sponsored by the Alderman Library & the Committee on the Bicentennial, February-May 1976. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1976.
Last updated:
October 31, 2017