Monday, September 3rd, 2007

How many books do you share with Thomas Jefferson?

I want to raise the profile of an idea, currently being discussed on Talk.

UPDATE: A group has been started, I see Dead People[‘s Books.

The idea is to have interested members enter into LibraryThing the personal libraries of dead luminaries. The idea started with member LolaWalser, who entered the library of poet Danilo Kiš (1935-1989). Jefferson and John Adams have also been proposed.

I am particularly keen on Jefferson. Apart from being at the center of American’s early intellectual and political life, Jefferson had a special place in the history of American bibliophilia and American libraries. As the Library of Congres web site recounts it:

“By 1814 when the British burned the nation’s Capitol and the Library of Congress, Jefferson had acquired the largest personal collection of books in the United States. Jefferson offered to sell his library to Congress as a replacement for the collection destroyed by the British during the War of 1812. Congress purchased Jefferson’s library for $23,950 in 1815.”

As a personal collection that became something more, Jefferson’s library has some sideways relation to what LibraryThing is all about.* If LibraryThing had been around, I think Jefferson would have liked it. Jefferson’s nemesis, King George III (r. 1760–1820), was also a prodigious library-maker, and if the two could have compared collections, it’s likely they would have got to talking and things would have gone better. While there have been (to my knowledge) no LibraryThing marriages, I am sure there have been no wars.

What would be the point? Well, I think it would be cool to see how many books you share with Jefferson. Jefferson’s classification system is also of interest, and would go into tags well. More fun, perhaps, would his Tag Mirror. More generally, it would be a fun demonstration of LibraryThing’s bibliographic reach and of what committed people can accomplish together.

Lastly, although Jefferson’s books are—in theory—online, having them in LibraryThing, with links to the printed catalog, would be a big improvement over the current GIFs of scanned pages, and might well draw more people into thinking about Jefferson’s books, and how personal collections inform intellectual and political life.**

Check out the discussion and join in. We need a leader—not me!—and to solve a few questions. Then we can start in. I hosie his Latin and Greek books.***

*One point needs mentioning. Jefferson’s love of books—he started another collection as soon as he sold his first one—together with a love of French wine and other fine things took a severe financial toll, and he died deeply in debt. So, while Washington freed his slaves in his will, Jefferson, an outspoken radical and sometime opponent of slavery, freed none. On the contrary, his slaves were sold at auction and scattered.
**Don’t worry, if LibraryThing fills up with dead people, we’ll do something to prevent your “Members with your books” from looking like a cemetery roll.
***I did my undergraduate history thesis on images of Greece in Antebellum southern literature and politics. I remember going through the printed catalogs of Jefferson’s library, and even the LC loan slips of Jefferson Davis, preserved in his papers. Just in case someone says it, I want to put it out there that Jefferson had fine Latin, but his Greek was never very good.

Labels: groups, libraries of the dead


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