A chimney fire in the U.S. Capitol the morning before Christmas in 1851 destroyed much of what was then the Library of Congress, including about two-thirds of Thomas Jefferson’s book collection.
Congress had earlier bought, for $23,700, the nearly bankrupt Founding Father’s personal library of more than 6,000 volumes to replace the original congressional library that had been lost when the British burned the Capitol in 1814.
The Library of Congress went on to become the largest and best-equipped in the world, safely housed in its own elaborate — and fireproof — headquarters across the plaza from the Capitol.
Jefferson’s collection, however, was thought to be largely lost. In 1943, to mark Jefferson’s 200th birthday, an assiduous librarian with the wonderful name of E. Millicent Sowerby drew up a catalog of every book Jefferson was ever known to have owned.
Using that list, by 1998 the library’s rare-books chief, Mark Dimunation, was able to re-create from the library’s existing collection of original volumes one-third of the Jefferson library.
Since then, and with the aid of a $1 million endowment, Dimunation and his rare-books sleuths, searching here and in Europe, have been able to track down copies of most of the remaining tomes. There are perhaps 300 volumes missing and may never be found, given Jefferson’s often obscure interests.
The re-created Jefferson collection went on display in Washington over the weekend, shelved according to Jefferson’s own quirky cataloging system, to mark the third president’s 265th birthday.
And to the library staff we say, well done.