America's Library: Thomas Jefferson's Massive Book Donation and the Creation of the Library of Congress

September 10, 2014



Many of us love to read, and if you are a Jefferson enthusiast like myself, you enjoy reading about Thomas Jefferson and the time period in which he lived, 1743-1826. Jefferson accumulated thousands of books in his lifetime, and read each one of them. Where did he find the time? Today, that would virtually be impossible to do. For Thomas Jefferson, it is likely he drank a strong cup of his homemade coffee after dinner. It was served at breakfast, and most likely also after dinner in a silver coffee urn that was made from his own design. A cup of strong coffee like that would certainly add more hours to his day or night! "The favorite drink of the civilised world."


"On one measure of the coffee ground into meal pour three measures of boiling water. Boil it on hot ashes mixed with coal till the meal disappears from the top, when it will be precipitated. Pour it three times through a flannel strainer. It will yield 2 1/3 measures of clear coffee." ~ Thomas Jefferson


By 1815, Thomas Jefferson had collected books across a vast spectrum of topics and languages, which eventually totaled 6,487 books, the largest private book collection in North America. He divided his Monticello library into such categories as Memory, Reason, and Imagination, which exemplified and spanned his multifaceted interests.


In 1800, President John Adams signed a bill transferring the seat of the U.S. government to Washington.  At that time, the Library of Congress was then established. The legislation described a library of "such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress." The initial collection of 740 books and 3 maps was housed in the new Capitol Building until August 1814, when invading British troops burned the building, destroying the small library.


President Thomas Jefferson, then retired and living at Monticello, offered his personal library as a replacement.  In January 1815, Congress appropriated $23,950 to purchase Jefferson's collection of  6,487 books, and thereby laid the foundation for a great national library. 


Facing a shortage of space in the Capitol building, and concerned about the safety of the collection after two disastrous fires, Congress approved the construction of a separate building for its Library.


The new "Congressional Library" was opened on November 1, 1897, and hailed as a glorious national monument.  In 1980, the building was named for Thomas Jefferson in honor of his role in the Library's history.  Between 1984 and 1997, the Thomas Jefferson Building was restored to its original 19th century splendor. It is located at 10 First Street SE, Washington, DC.


You can read more about Thomas Jefferson and his love of books in my new book entitled, THOMAS JEFFERSON-FROM BOY TO MAN,which can be purchased through my web site,, or on Amazon!

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Header photo courtesy of The Creator's Creations Photography, Charlottesville, Virginia
Author photo courtesy of KMS Photography, Charlottesville, Virginia

Marriage Bond Facsimile cover background courtesy of The Library of Virginia.

Book cover foreground image courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.