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Library Of Congress Searches For Missing Jefferson Books


For more than a decade, staffers have been searching the world over for books that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson. They've found all of them but the last 250. As NPR's Laura Sullivan reports, these books hold special resonance for the library.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: It's pretty easy to know who's to blame for why Thomas Jefferson's library is no longer intact. It all started with the British. They came to town in 1814 - here to Washington, D.C. - and burned the place down. Right here in the capital, in this very spot that I'm standing. It's actually now Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's office. But 200 years ago, British soldiers stood here in what was once a library and took all 3,000 books off the shelves and used them as kindling to set the building on fire - all of which leads us to Thomas Jefferson.

MARK DIMUNATION: Jefferson is already in Monticello, and is so devastated by the loss of this library that he changes his plans, and offers to the American people the sale of his personal library for whatever cost they're willing to pay.

SULLIVAN: Mark Dimunation is chief of rare books and special collections for the Library of Congress. It's early in the morning in the library, before the tourists come. And he's standing in a stunning corner of the building, across the street from the Capitol, surrounded by Thomas Jefferson's books - or at least what's left of them because the story takes another turn. Here's what happened. Congress did pay Jefferson for his books - about $23,000. It was the largest collection of books in North America - 6,487 of them.

DIMUNATION: And in 1815, a team of workers came to Monticello, boarded up the front of the bookcases, took them to Blodgett's Hotel, which was the temporary Capitol, and it became the Library of Congress. And Jefferson never saw his books again.

SULLIVAN: But then, in 1851, there was another fire. So OK, it wasn't entirely the fault of the British. This fire started by accident, in a chimney in the Capitol. Only a third of Jefferson's books survived. Now those 2,000 surviving volumes line the shelves of the library just as Jefferson like them - sorted by topic and organized in a circle, so he could get any information he needed quickly.

DIMUNATION: We are literally surrounded by books in this exhibition. And they - and people understand immediately what they represent - that they represent the universe, and the heart and the mind of Thomas Jefferson.

SULLIVAN: Which brings us to the mystery - 16 years ago, the Library of Congress sought to restore Jefferson's original collection and find exact copies of all the books that burned in the 1851 fire. Staffers kept the project a secret so as not to drive up prices. They were looking for about 4,000 books. And they started where anyone else would go to look to for really old, rare books - their own bookshelves. The Library of Congress's catalog turned up 2,000 of them. Dimunation picked up almost 2,000 more at auction houses, public libraries and book dealers, but the last 250 he can't find anywhere. Either no one's got a copy, or it's a book nobody alive now has ever heard of.

DIMUNATION: Jefferson is a fairly specific kind of scholar and reader. And he has books that range the level of obscurity that are sometimes very difficult to locate in the market. And so what you may have on the one hand - Sterne's collected works, printed in London - you may have, on the other hand, an 11-page pamphlet about the pomegranate tree.

SULLIVAN: The collection is now displayed with markers. A green ribbon means the book belonged to Jefferson - it was his book. A yellow ribbon means it's an exact copy - same edition, same printing press. A black box with a title means that the book is still missing. Jefferson believed books were not to be collected - they were to be used, read, absorbed by as many people as possible. It's a philosophy this library has adhered to for 200 years.

DIMUNATION: It's quite common - people will work on a subject and will put the book down, and we'll say, please make sure the green ribbon stays in the book. They'll ask you why, and then you'll say, because it indicates that it's Thomas Jefferson's book. And they'll say, I didn't order Thomas Jefferson's book. And our response is, it's the only copy in the Library of Congress. If you want to use this, you'll have to use Mr. Jefferson's copy.

SULLIVAN: On a recent day, Linda Curlee, her husband and her grandson came from Magee, Mississippi and wandered through the shelves of Jefferson's books.

LINDA CURLEE: Well, it says a lot about the man in his quest for truth and knowledge, you know?

SULLIVAN: Curlee says, standing among the books Jefferson used to create a nation is powerful.

CURLEE: Next time we come back, we're going to spend, probably, the whole day here - and go down and check out a book, and sit in one of those desks and experience what he talked about.

SULLIVAN: Jefferson would have appreciated that. All the library's books are available for anyone who wants to read them - even the British. Laura Sullivan. NPR News, the Capitol.

GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sullivan is an NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most significant issues.