Jefferson Library

The Jefferson Library is a national treasure.  Considered one of the world’s most beautiful buildings when it opened in 1898, it is just as lovely today.  I visited it in June 2013 and took some pictures.  Hope you enjoy them.

The Jefferson Library is one of the three buildings that  now make up what is called the Library of Congress and the story of the books Jefferson sold – not gave – Congress is as interesting as the building itself.

The Library of Congress was established by Act of Congress in 1800, signed by President John Adams, included in a bill transferring the government from Philadelphia to Washington, DC, a new city to be built on a hill — a small hill anyway.  It was described as “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress – and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein….” and it all began with just $5,000 appropriated from the citizens of the United States. 

The original collection of books was housed in the new Capitol until August 1814 when the Brits set fire to the building and burned and pillaged the Library.

A month later, Thomas Jefferson offered his collection of books to Congress.  But Jefferson did not donate the books to Congress.  He sold them.

In today’s dollars, the taxpayers in 1815 paid almost $300,000 to buy Jefferson’s books.  And Jefferson went out and bought more, stating, “I cannot live without books.” Several thousand of his new collection of books were sold at auction in 1829 to pay off his creditors.  Jefferson  couldn’t possibly read all these books so clearly he was a hoarder and the US taxpayers helped support his habit.

Congress didn’t take very good care of what the taxpayers bought from Jefferson.  A Christmas Eve fire in 1851 destroyed nearly two-thirds of the 6,487 books the taxpayers bought from Jefferson.

Ah, well, the fire gave Congress a reason to buy more books and build a far grander place to store them.  And Congress kept going and building.  The Jefferson Building is now just one of three buildings that make up the Library of Congress. 

While its original stated purpose was to serve members of Congress, it is doubtful that Congressmen or Senators ever spend any time in the stacks at the Jefferson Library.   Historians do, however.

With books going digital, or available for just pennies delivered to one’s door, one has to wonder what the future will hold for the “Library of Congress.”  Most local libraries serve the public far better and the Jefferson Library is more museum than working library.  There is no fee to visit it, all libraries in the nation’s Capitol being “free” to visitors who come from all over the world.  Oddly, there is no donation box set out should anyone want to freely donate to its upkeep, which is paid for by non-volunteer contributions, your mandatory tax dollars.

So, the public has paid a fortune to build it, stock it and maintain it.  And if the Jefferson Library ever burns down, you can bet Congress will confiscate more money from its citizens to rebuild it.

But I love libraries, especially the little jewell Fallbrook has, and the Jefferson Library is worth visiting.  Hope you enjoy this tour.

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