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Thomas Jefferson Architectural Books Collection

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About the Collection

  • identical or earlier editions of titles owned by Jefferson
  • listed in OBIS by author, title, etc. (see comment below)
  • located in the Art Library Special Collections area
  • available for viewing by appointment

Thomas Jefferson was both an influential architect and avid bibliophile. Architectural books constituted a key component of his three great libraries, and provide modern scholars with an invaluable insight into Jefferson's designs. His first library (totaling 6,487 volumes) was sold to the United States in 1815, forming the basis of the Library of Congress.[1] He later began work on a second collection of several thousand books, which was auctioned off in 1829 to settle some of Jefferson's many financial obligations. Finally, Jefferson himself selected 130 volumes for the Fine Arts Library at the fledgling University of Virginia.

In 1940, Clarence Ward, professor of Art History and Director of the Allen Memorial Art Museum, began to re-create the architecture portion of Jefferson's library. Ward established a room in the Art Library (located in the museum at that time) as both a memorial to Jefferson and a study room for American architecture. The collection was a focal point of the room.

The Thomas Jefferson Architectural Books Collection is housed in the Clarence Ward Art Library's Special Collections. Oberlin College owns all but 6 of the 63 titles listed in Fiske Kimball's 1916 bibliography of Jefferson's architecture collection. Each volume is either the same edition Jefferson owned or an earlier addition.

Recent additions to the Thomas Jefferson Architectural Books collection

  • 1655 Rome edition of Filippo de Rossi's Ritratto di Roma Antica, acquired in 1999
  • a first edition (Paris 1674) of Claude Perrault's abridged version of Vitruvius' De Architectura, acquired in 2005 thanks to the generosity of the Friends of the Library
  • mémoire sur la découverte d'un ciment impénétrable a l'eau.... by Jean d'Étienne, (Paris 1782) acquired in 2012

Several lists of Jefferson's collections have been lost over the years, presenting a challenge for scholars trying to recreate Jefferson's library.[2] Three major bibliographies have emerged as particularly valuable sources regarding Jefferson's architecture books:

Fiske Kimball

Clarence Ward used Fiske Kimball's 1916 Thomas Jefferson, Architect to build the Art Library's Thomas Jefferson Architectural Books Collection. Fiske Kimball (1888-1955) was a highly influential architectural historian, credited with creating the field of American architectural history and establishing Jefferson's prominent place in the field.[3] In the bibliography Kimball assembled the various books on architecture and gardening which Jefferson owned at one time or another, with the dates of their acquisition and of their disposal by him or his heirs, so far as these dates are ascertainable. [4] Kimball states that to know what architectural books were at hand is particularly important in Jefferson's case on account of his dependence on books for his inspiration.

Millicent Sowerby

The standard reference for Jefferson's 1815 collection is Millicent Sowerby's massive Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson (1952-9). Sowerby painstakingly compiled this 4,931-item bibliography from lists in the Library of Congress and from Jefferson's letters. The project was intended for Jefferson's bicentennial in 1943, but was not completed until 16 years later.[5]

Mark Dimunation, chief of the Library of Congress' Rare Book and Special Collections division, called Sowerby's Catalogue the greatest bibliography of the 20th century.[6] Sowerby's bibliography is the foundation of the Library of Congress' re-creation of Jefferson's library.

William O'Neal

Thomas Jefferson created an extensive bibliography of fine art books for the library at the University of Virginia. Jefferson himself designed the buildings for the University, and saw his buildings as valuable educational examples. Ray W. Frantz writes that ...the University's holdings in architectural books and the physical aspect of the University were to reinforce one another...[7]

William O'Neal's A Fine Arts Library: Jefferson's Selections for the University of Virginia (1976) is based on the list prepared by Jefferson and his secretary, Nicholas Trist, in 1825, and has been further checked against the University's 1828 printed library catalog.

Jane Sandberg, Oberlin College Art Library, May 11, 2011

[1] Jefferson's Library." August 3, 2010 [2] Mark Dimunation. The Whole of Recorded Knowledge: Jefferson as Collector and Reader (paper presented at The Libraries, Leadership & Legacy of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Boston, Mass., June 21-27, 2009. [3] Richard Guy Wilson. "Kimball, Fiske." In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, (accessed April 19, 2011). [4] Fiske Kimball, Thomas Jefferson, architect; original designs in the collection of Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, Junior.... (1916), p. 90-101. [5] Mark Dimunation. The Whole of Recorded Knowledge: Jefferson as Collector and Reader (paper presented at The Libraries, Leadership & Legacy of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Boston, Mass., June 21-27, 2009, (accessed April 19, 2011). [6] Fineberg, Gail. "Thomas Jefferson’s Library." June, 2008. (accessed April 21, 2011). [7] O'Neal, William B. A Fine Arts Library: Jefferson's Selections for the University of Virginia Together with His Architectural Books at Monticello: an Exhibition Sponsored by the Alderman Library & the Committee on the Bicentennial, February-May 1976. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1976.
Last updated:
May 23, 2014