Who Said “I Cannot Live Without Books”?

by Cie McCullough Buschle on April 12, 2011

in Arts and Culture

The Library of Congress sealIn 1800, when the capital of the US was officially moved from Philadelphia to Washington D.C., Congress also decided they needed some books, and a nice place to put them. So they purchased $5000 worth of books and put them in a room in the brand new Capitol building.

All sorts of official rules were set up, such as yes, the President and the VP could borrow the books too, and of course Congress needed a Librarian of Congress and a Joint Committee on the Library. While President John Adams signed the Act that officially stated the need for the Library, Thomas Jefferson signed the first law setting up these rules and structures. 740 books were ordered from London, mostly dry legal books, along with three maps.

In 1814 an army from London came, burned down the new Capitol and took all the books back. In fairness to the men of that army, it was the War of 1812, and invading armies are wont to do such things. So the small library, now at 3,000 books, was burned and pillaged.
Where is a young country to go to replace such a valuable investment? Low on funds after the war, the US needed a benefactor, someone who believed not only in the country but in the necessity and the power of books. Maybe a former president, or a founding father. Maybe both.

Antique booksEnter Thomas Jefferson. Not a month goes by and Jefferson offers his personal collection of almost 65 hundred books. It was considered to be one of the finest in the country, containing rare and valuable edition. Fifty years in the making, Jefferson’s collection was not only twice as big, but far more varied than the original Library. Books of other languages, books on philosophy, science, literature, even cookbooks are now the stuff of the new Library of Congress. Not hand picked law books, but books that will actually reflect the population of the growing country. Says Jefferson “I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”

After five months Congress appropriate $23,950 for the 6,487 books, although Jefferson would have accepted any price. This price was based on the measurements of the books’ sizes. To prepare for the shipment of the library from Monticello to DC, a Georgetown bookdealer, Joseph Milligan, was asked to come and supervise while Jefferson himself arranged and cataloged the books.

At that time there was no Dewey Decimal System and libraries were arranged alphabetically. Jefferson preferred, of course, a more scientific method based on Lord Bacon’s tables of science, the hierarchy of Memory, Reason and Imagination. This meant books were arranged by subject matter, first History, then Philosophy, then the Fine Arts, with a few subject modification. After all, where did Jefferson put his personal cookbooks? However, in day to day usage, even this method was abandoned in favor of simply shelving books by size.

Thomas JeffersonHowever the books were arranged, Thomas Jefferson’s belief was that all books, no matter the subject, would be of importance to the US legislature. It is this “concept of universality” that still serves the Library of Congress today, when it is not just a resource for the country, but for the entire world.

For more on the Library of Congress, please take a look at these books:

America’s Library: The Story of the Library of Congress, 1800-2000 by James Conaway is the story of our National Library, told through the history of the thirteen Librarians of Congress. It includes 100 black and white and 12 color illustrations. This book shows how the Library of Congress, unique among other US institutions, developed and grew along with our nation’s development.

The Library of Congress: An Architectural Alphabet by James Billington is an adult alphabet book of beautifully photographed images of the interior of the Library of Congress. A is for Arch, B is for Balustrade, C is for Clock, D is for Dome. Even the letters are individually illustrated. If you cannot visit the Library, you may want to visit this book instead.

Jefferson’s Books by Douglas L. Wilson and Daniel J. Boorstin looks at Jefferson’s life and insatiable love for books. Thomas Jefferson never stopped reading, and his own personal libraries were always overflowing.

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Cie McCullough Buschle lives with her dog Einstein and a cat named Burton Guster. She is a lifelong traveler and enjoys researching history through holidays, toys, and everyday objects. Cie is a sculptor and co-owns The Creative Chameleon, a place where kids and adults can create, paint, celebrate, and just have a lot of fun. Sometimes you can find her time traveling back to the Middle Ages as part of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

Dawn Morris April 13, 2011 at 10:47 am

What a fascinating post! With so many people taking books-in-print and libraries for granted these days, it’s so refreshing to be reminded of their history and value. Thank you.

Your book recommendations sound wonderful, and you certainly peaked my interest with the adult alphabet book! Thanks for providing even more proof that picture books are not only for young children. All too many tweens, teens, and adults are missing out on some real masterpieces.

Cie April 13, 2011 at 11:49 pm

Thanks Dawn! I’m glad you liked it.
You know, I love researching and writing these articles, because I learn so much too, but I have the most fun picking out the images and the books that go along with them. I love books as much as Jefferson did, so when I pick out my recommendations I am almost virtually shopping for ones I would buy if I could!

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