The State of the Union: Reconstructing a Thomas Jefferson Family Library


State of the Union: Reconstructing a Thomas Jefferson Family Library


A March, 1880 entry in Washington University’s Board of Trustees ledger records a donation: “from Mr. & Mrs. Edmund Dwight of Boston, a gift of about 3000 volumes, being the library of Joseph Coolidge, dec[eased], the father of Mrs. Dwight.” The gift doubled the size of the library at the young university and included many “very beautiful specimens of the printer’s and binder’s work.” The volumes were cataloged in a ledger, given special bookplates, and housed in new cases within a room that served as the library. In 1905, when the university moved from 17th and Washington Avenue to its current campus, the collection found its way to the spectacular new Ridgley Library, where it formed part of the working life of the institution – circulated, annotated, and studied by generations of Washington University students.

In late 2010, a discovery by Ann Lucas Birle, a scholar at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, revealed what had been hiding, as it were, in plain sight for 130 years: at least 82 volumes in this multi-generation family library had once been owned by the nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. Researching the life of Jefferson’s granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Coolidge, Birle noticed among her Google Books search results an 1880 announcement of the Coolidge Library gift in a Harvard alumni magazine. Ellen Wayles Coolidge had passed away in 1876, her husband Joseph in 1879, and it fell to a daughter and son-in-law to find a home for the library. It is unclear whether it was known at the time of the gift that the collection included books from Jefferson’s personal retirement library, dispersed in an 1829 auction to pay debts on his Monticello estate; there is in any event no mention of the association in contemporary sources.

In the year following the 2011 President’s Day announcement of this exciting discovery, the Libraries have hosted lectures and classes to facilitate hands-on engagement with the Jefferson books, and we have been working with Birle and her colleague at Monticello, Endrina Tay, to identify and document volumes in the larger Coolidge Library of which they form a part. With this 2012 exhibition and the expanded online version of it, we are pleased to provide additional details about the make up of the collection – patterns of ownership and use, distribution of subjects and languages, etc. – and to report on Washington University’s ongoing stewardship activities.

As our institutions continue to reconstruct the Coolidge Library, we look forward to seeing how scholars will use the new data to deepen our understanding of Jefferson and his extended circle. In fact, the project invites reflection on current developments in humanities research methods generally. On the one hand, we recognize that by encoding and disseminating information relating to unique local collections, the academical village envisioned by Jefferson becomes global, and the library at its center a vast network of interconnected data. We are able to process and mine, map and visually render not only the richly documented public life of an American president but, increasingly, the lives of those who left few traces: a single letter or photograph or domestic object. While this democratization of information is both exhilarating and empowering, there is also some ambivalence as we navigate the shifting landscapes of privacy and intellectual property. In an age of pervasive social media that makes it increasingly difficult to manage our public profiles, we can feel vulnerable even as we acknowledge the richly nuanced histories made possible by it.

At the same time, while technology enables new ways of reading and interpreting our cultural artifacts, there is no denying the frisson that comes from engaging with the physical object. We are somehow moved by traces of ownership and use: the signatures of a mother and her daughter within a small volume of literature, the gift inscription of a brother to the twin who would later be killed in the Civil War, the annotations in a text that bear witness to the life of the mind. An understanding of how and why this might be so has, interestingly, itself become the subject of empirical investigation: the study of neuroaesthetics, visceral perception, bioethics, and a host of related disciplines have sprung up in recent years, aided by increasingly sophisticated methods of measuring and analyzing the residue of somatic-based human response. How wonderful and fitting that our libraries – data rich, complex, interconnected, and flexible – continue to be at the very heart of our learning environments.


Erin K. Davis

Curator of Rare Books

Washington University Libraries

March, 2012