Library Looks Near and Far for Missing Jefferson Books

Posted July 15, 2003 at 4:32pm

By Jennifer Yachnin Roll Call Staff The Library of Congress’ Mark Dimunation acknowledges he is searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack — only in his case it’s more like a pomegranate.

The head of the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Dimunation has worked for several years to help restore former President Thomas Jefferson’s personal library.

As the search winds down to the final 400 items, Dimunation acknowledges the difficulty in finding items like an Italian pamphlet on pomegranates.

“This span, this last leg will be the hardest,” he said.

The Library, which began the project as part of its bicentennial celebration in 2000, has collected all but about 400 items it needs to rebuild Jefferson’s 6,487-volume collection, two-thirds of which was lost during an 1851 fire in the Capitol that destroyed about 35,000 items owned by the Library.

“As we get closer to the end, the books are more difficult to attain,” Dimunation said.

Among the remaining missing items are various pamphlets on agricultural topics, such as pomegranates, potatoes and crop rotation, as well as horticulture and the brewing of beer.

Dimunation views the missing materials as some of the most interesting in the wide-ranging collection. “It’s very much a working library,” he said.

The Library continues to make progress — about 30 titles have been recently purchased — but Dimunation said that at least a few volumes may be unattainable, including “The Pilot,” a navigation guide not available since the 19th century.

“It will be impossible to get all of them,” he said.

When the Library began its search several years ago, it found a significant number of the books on the list within its own collection of 126 million items.

Officials also employed purchasers to anonymously procure items from antique book dealers and markets. That practice helped the Library avoid overpaying for items, Dimunation explained.

“We wanted to get the books as reasonably as we could,” he said.

The Library has purchased 700 volumes thus far, using a portion of the $1 million gift Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his wife, Gene, donated in 1999 to bolster the collection.

Many of the books in Jefferson’s collection are single editions that originated in England or France. A purchaser would locate titles based on Jefferson’s interests and ship them to the United States.

Dimunation said the Library has exhausted many of the available sources, but he noted that books can become available through estates, auctions and private collections.

“Because they’re not on the market doesn’t mean they can’t be on the market,” he said.

For now, the Jefferson collection is stored in the Library’s four-story rare book vault, identified by a handwritten sign on a piece of white paper taped to the end of one of the stacks.

But the Library plans to eventually place the collection in the Jefferson Building, creating a secure exhibit that also functions as a working bookshelf because the collection is one of the most used in the Library, Dimunation explained.

“These are the books [Jefferson] owned when he wrote the Declaration of Independence,” he said. “But you can also find all of Monticello on the shelf.”

Officials hope to have the books on display by 2005 and plan to use a system of color- coded ribbons to identify original, donated and purchased titles, as well as missing items. Officials used the system during an exhibition of the books in 2000.

In the meantime, Dimunation remains undeterred by the difficulty of the project: “We’ll finish it. I’ll finish it.”