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Jefferson’s Library Books

A significant collection of Thomas Jefferson’s library has been discovered at Washington University of St. Louis Library.

Those books were dispersed after Jefferson’s heirs reluctantly decided to sell them at auction in 1829 to pay off Jefferson’s debts; auction catalogs survive, but not a record of who bought the books. The retirement collection is the least known of Jefferson’s libraries and one in which classics were represented in disproportionately greater numbers than politics and the law. He cataloged all 1,600 books according to “the faculties of the human mind, like memory, reason and imagination, and then classified them further. Many were in French or Italian.

“Currently Monticello and the University of Virginia have the largest concentrations of books from the retirement library, said Kevin J. Hayes, an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and the author of The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson. This new find would put Washington University among them. The question I would like to answer is: Do they contain any marginalia? Sometimes Jefferson wrote in his books; his marginalia would enhance both the scholarly and the cultural value of the books immeasurably.

A total of about 28 titles in 74 volumes were found in the library. Not to be snarky, but isn’t the role of the library to catalog and know what books are in their collection? A great find but kinda surprising that they have never been discovered until now. Just makes you wonder what other hidden treasures are out there in plain sight?

I was down at Monticello back in November with my family. The existing collection of books in the home’s library was pretty amazing and really reinforced Jefferson’s obsession with books, reading and learning. I look forward to hearing what interesting insights and details are discovered after researchers have had the chance to look through the collection


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