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Library of Congress restores Thomas Jefferson’s literary legacy

July 4, 2014 at 6:47 PM EST
Researchers at the Library of Congress are working to piece together the founding father's original collection of books. Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, as the nation celebrates its 238th birthday, Jeff takes a look at an effort to preserve a key part of its literary history.

MARK DIMUNATION, Chief of Rare Books, Library of Congress: If it has a J in front of the number up here, it means it survived the fire.

JEFFREY BROWN: The J is for Jefferson. And Mark Dimunation, chief of rare books for the Library of Congress, is a lover of all things Thomas Jefferson.

MARK DIMUNATION: A pamphlet, 1774, you know, just the most important statement of revolutionary ideology ever written.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Library of Congress was established in 1800, and housed in the new Capitol. Fourteen years later, when the British burned much of Washington during the War of 1812, including the Capitol, the library and its then 3,000 volumes were destroyed.

Jefferson, by then retired and living at Monticello, offered his own library of 6,500 books as a replacement for — quote — “whatever price found appropriate.” It was the largest private collection of its time, and covered a huge range of subjects. Then, in 1851, fire struck again, this time from a chimney flue in the Capitol Building. And almost two-thirds of Jefferson’s books were lost.

It was then that a decision was made to build a new separate Library of Congress, today housed in three buildings, one of them named for Jefferson.

MARK DIMUNATION: Books that are Thomas Jefferson’s that have survived all the travail that came in 1815 and have stayed with us are marked with green ribbons such as the books here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sixteen years ago, Mark Dimunation and his team set out to restore Jefferson’s collection, replacing the lost books with copies from the same publisher, date, and edition.

Green ribbons denote books from the original library. Gold are copies that serve as replacements. The white or ghost boxes are placeholders for the 250 books still being sought.

MARK DIMUNATION: But this is extremely important to America, and the American people, on many, many levels. It’s not just that these are Thomas Jefferson’s books. These are the books that Jefferson actually used to shape his political ideas. We can pinpoint books that be brought with him to Philadelphia that were instrumental in shaping the language of the Declaration of Independence.

We know the text that caused him to switch to “pursuit of happiness” as opposed to the “pursuit of property,” things that affect us to this day. So, we have this documentation of not only the 18th century, but when you do the whole sweep of the circle, you realize that Jefferson has documented the Enlightenment, and has brought it to America.

JEFFREY BROWN: Missing pieces of the collection have been filled in primarily through rare book dealers, but also by tracking down duplicates in attics and homes.

One book was hidden in plain sight at the Naval Observatory in Washington, the home of the vice president.

MARK DIMUNATION: There, a work about the observation of the shape of the Earth, which was done by taking measurements in northern Finland by a Frenchman, and he arrives at the conclusion that the Earth is more egg-shaped than round, and quite an important study, and not that common of a work.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, tourists flow through the circular space of the Jefferson Library, the way its founder had ordered his books.

MARK DIMUNATION: This is a man who works with his books. He’s not an idle collector. He’s not an idle reader. He refers to his books and moves out. But we know from his correspondence that he read these books.

JEFFREY BROWN: Digital kiosks categorized by memory, reason, and imagination make the collection searchable and readable online for visitors like this family from Fort Smith, Arkansas.

MAN: It really is a treasure to think of all this has survived this many years. You hear about everything he knew and read about and things like that, but to actually see the number books, it’s just really incredible.

WOMAN: Yes, it is awe-inspiring and very, I think, humbling for how little we probably pursue other passions, so — compared to him.

JEFFREY BROWN: The books themselves, including this trilingual edition of the works of Tacitus, are under lock and key, with a limited curatorial staff having access.

But any book can be requested for use in the rare book reading room by researchers with a special pass. Dimunation shared books, and thoughts, with Belgian diplomat and publisher Andre Querton, who’d visited Jefferson’s home at Monticello a few years ago and found himself captivated.

ANDRE QUERTON, Book Publisher: I have had this fascination for Thomas Jefferson, for his house, for his books, as I’m a book collector myself and love to read all the time. And, suddenly, I wanted to touch his books.

Everybody knows the expression to fall in love. Do you use in English to fall in friendship? Well, I fell in friendship with him. What is lost is lost. A shame. It’s the history of mankind. And what I’m seeing here is the remains of the day.

JEFFREY BROWN: Maybe so, but Dimunation hopes his quest to recover more books will continue to bear fruit. Just in the past couple of months, he’s received 12 copies he’d been searching for.

MARK DIMUNATION: What better sandbox could you be in? I mean, I’m reconstructing Jefferson’s world. These are important books. It’s a puzzle. It’s the foundation of the Library of Congress. Couldn’t be better.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, with each recovered volume, another piece of the puzzle of who Thomas Jefferson was, as a man and a leader, is put more firmly in place.