Friday, April 11, 2008

LC Reconstitutes TJ's Library

Today's Washington Post contains a report by Amy Orndorff on a brand-new display of Thomas Jefferson's library which is set to open tomorrow at the Library of Congress. Led by Mark Dimunation, chief of the LC's Rare Books and Special Collections Division, a team has been working diligently for several years to collect copies of all the titles Jefferson donated to the Library in 1815 (which his LT catalog seeks to replicate as well).

More than two-thirds of the original Jefferson books were lost in the fire of 1851, so Dimunation and his associates have been primarily seeking out replacement copies. "Re-creating such a famous library is a book collector's dream, Dimunation said, and it has not been easy. The search took Dimunation and his staff near and far, from their own stacks to the basements of French booksellers as they hunted down the same editions and obscure pamphlets from the early 1800s. 'We have dealt with the dealers from both coasts and everything in between,' Dimunation said with a resigned laugh. 'I am still waiting for my pamphlet on brewing beer.'"

The search hasn't been easy or cheap: "They have made use of a $1 million endowment and have spent from $100 to $17,000 on a single volume," Orndorff reports. Even with all that, some 300 volumes remain elusive: "In some cases, no identical copies exist, and there is insufficient information to determine every book he owned. Some titles aren't on the market for any price."

Another fascinating fact about the new exhibit: the LC "has replicated not only Jefferson's collection but also the manner in which he displayed it. He arranged his bookshelves in a conch shell pattern, so that a person could walk into the middle and be surrounded by books."

I can tell I'm going to have to plan a DC trip to see this display, it sounds utterly wonderful.

There will be a digital component to the new exhibit: I'll add the link to that as soon as it's available (hopefully tomorrow).

[Update: LC's Matt Raymond has an LC-Blog post on TJ's library, which includes a long and excellent story on the reconstitution project from the in-house newspaper. Read the whole thing.]