Spring 2011 | Volume 61, Issue 1
St. Louis's Washington University discovers that it owns a trove of the third president's books
Recently, while conducting some routine Internet research for her biography on a granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson, historian Ann Lucas Birle stumbled upon an obscure but intriguing reference: an 1880 bequest recorded that St. Louis’s Washington University was to receive a 3,000-volume library, which contained many books that were “rare and of great value.” The original owner—the granddaughter’s husband—was a known collector of Jefferson’s books.
Birle contacted historian Endrina Tay, who had spent 18 months chasing down the remnants of an 1829 auction at Monticello for the Thomas Jefferson’s Libraries project, whose goal is to publicly inventory all the president’s books.
Then Washington University Libraries rare books curator Erin Davis received an exhilarating if unnerving phone call, informing her that she could be within arm’s reach of a national treasure. She found the collection catalog in the archives. Without realizing it, the university had possessed the third largest collection of Jefferson’s books for more than 130 years, putting it right behind the Library of Congress and the University of Virginia.
On February 14, Tay and Birle flew to St. Louis and examined the 74 volumes, each one bearing Jefferson’s T.I. monogram, so indicated because Latin contains no J. In the books they found Jefferson’s notations, including a series of numbers in an architecture book by Fréart de Chambray that he used to calculate the proportions of a Corinthian-style pillar.
“To find his handwritten notations is like peering over Jefferson’s shoulder to see his mind at work,” says Leslie Greene Bowman, president of Monticello and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.