Last night I went to a fascinating talk by Mark Dimunation, head of Rare Books and Special Collections at the Library of Congress, on his project on the reconstruction of Thomas Jefferson’s library. Dimunation, a Minnesotan and St. Olaf grad, spoke at a well-attended program of the Friends of the U of M Libraries (at which I was the youngest person in the audience, natch).
When the British burned Washington City in 1814 (as revenge for the earlier American sack of Toronto), they destroyed every public building in town, including the fledgling 3000 volume congressional library. The next year, Thomas Jefferson, owner of the largest book collection in North America at the time, offered to sell his collection to the nation: thus was born the Library of Congress. Jefferson had some 6500 books on almost every conceivable topic, an e universalist library, organized bibliographically by Jefferson along Encyclopedian lines of Memory, Reason and Imagination, which he took to mean History, Philosophy and Fine Arts. There was dissension on the floor of Congress about buying Jefferson’s library, given its high proportion of “immoral” (aka French) books, but it was finally sold and drawn by carriage to Washington in carriages taking two different routes, in case of robbery. Unfortunately, the library building burned down thirty years later, destroying two-thirds of the library. Dimunation’s project was to reconstruct Jefferson’s library. Some three hundred books still elude the LoC, including a 12-page Italian pamphlet on growing pomegranate trees, but the bulk of the collection is on display at the LoC in a circular arrangement of bookshelves, the whole of knowledge surrounding the reader. Dimunation told other stories about the RBSC’s amazing collections–a great program!