The Rare Book and Special Collections Division receives queries about many aspects of Thomas Jefferson's library, and we have attempted to answer some of the most frequently asked questions here.
Q: Are all of Thomas Jefferson's books at the Library of Congress?
A: No. After Thomas Jefferson sold his Monticello Library to Congress in 1815, he made his notable statement, "I cannot live without books," and he began collecting again. This second library is often called his "Retirement Library" or "Supplement Library." The core of this collection was the modest library he maintained at his retreat plantation, Poplar Forest. He seemed to select titles for his retreat library that related more to personal rather than professional interests. Most of these books were eventually auctioned off after his death in 1827, and these books can be found in numerous libraries and private collections. The Library of Congress owns 84 books from this later library, and they can be found in the online catalog by searching (in quotation marks): "Thomas Jefferson Library Collection Supplement (Library of Congress)".
Q: Why are there gaps in the collection on display? Is there a list of books the Library is seeking?
A: At the time of the exhibition's creation, some of Jefferson's books could not be identified because there was not enough information in his manuscript catalog or the printed catalog that came out soon after the sale of his library to Congress. Curators have purchased many books to fill in the gaps, but these books have not yet been added to the exhibition. Some of the books that could not be found only exist in one or two copies at other libraries. Because of these and other logistical issues relating to the marketplace, the Library of Congress does not share the list of books being sought, but please rest assured that our experienced curators have spent many hours attempting to locate copies for the collection.
Q: Are all of Thomas Jefferson's books digitized and available on the Library's website?
A: The Library of Congress has started digitizing Thomas Jefferson's copies of his books, however, they are extremely fragile (due in part to the fire they survived in 1851). So far only about 80 of his books have been digitized, and you can see them by following this link: https://www.loc.gov/collections/rare-book-selections/?q=sowerby.
Q: How many languages are represented in Jefferson's library? How many languages could he speak or read?
A: Thomas Jefferson spoke English, French, Italian and Latin, and he read Ancient Greek and Spanish, with some knowledge of German and Dutch. Jefferson’s Library includes books in 16 languages, but there are also dictionaries, grammars and linguistic treatises in his Library representing 43 languages. The approximate language breakdown of the collection is: 50% in English, 20% in French, 10% in Latin and Greek, and the remaining 20% in Italian, German, Spanish, with a few titles in: Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, and books about Native American languages.
Q: What was Thomas Jefferson's favorite book?
A: Thomas Jefferson is not known to have had a favorite book, but he was especially fond of Laurence Sterne's "A sentimental journey through France and Italy," which is volume two in Jefferson's copy of the The works of Laurence Sterne in ten volumes (London, 1780); unfortunately the Library of Congress does not have Jefferson's copy of this book.
Q: Did Thomas Jefferson own a copy of the Islamic holy book, the Qur'an?
A: Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of an English translation of the Qur'an: The Koran, commonly called the Alcoran of Mohammed / translated into English immediately from the original Arabic ; with explanatory notes, taken from the most approved commentators. Second edition. (London: Printed for L. Hawes, W. Clarke, and R. Collins, 1764). It appears that Jefferson purchased George Sale’s translation of the Qur'an in 1765 from the office of the Virginia Gazette. At the time, Jefferson was engaged in his law studies at the College of William and Mary, so it is likely that he purchased the book as an example of Arabic law as his textbooks suggested. This was the first English edition to have been translated directly from the Arabic and is often regarded as the best early translation of the Koran. Jefferson cataloged the book in his section on “Religion,” where it shared the shelves with early Greek and Roman mythology and the Bible. The book does not contain any annotations by Jefferson other than his ownership initials.
Q: What is the oldest book in Jefferson's Library?
A: Paulus Orosius,Historiarum adversus paganos, printed in Paris in 1506. Orosius (circa 375/385 – circa 420 AD) was a Roman priest, historian and theologian, and a student of Augustine of Hippo. The book is a historical narration focusing on the pagan peoples from the earliest time up until Orosius's time.