Author: Endrina Tay

associate foundation librarian for technical services at the Jefferson Library and project manager for Thomas Jefferson’s Libraries, both based at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Jefferson, Thomas and Books

“I cannot live without books,” Thomas Jefferson declared in a letter to John Adams on June 10, 1815. To the man who had authored the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom and founded the University of Virginia, books and reading were “a necessary of life.” Jefferson relied on his books as his chief source of inspiration and practical knowledge, and believed that education was the means to an enlightened and informed citizenry that would help preserve democracy. Jefferson owned between 9,000 and 10,000 books in his lifetime—some were inherited from his father, Peter Jefferson, and his mentor, George Wythe; others were acquired in Williamsburg; Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; New York City; or Europe. Their subjects included history, philosophy, law, architecture, science and literature. In 1815, Jefferson sold his 6,500-volume library to Congress to replace the one that was destroyed when the British burned the U.S. Capitol on August 24, 1814. He then replenished his personal supply of books by building a smaller collection that reflected his retirement interests. The year before he died, he drew up a catalog of books for the library at the University of Virginia. The list, composed of 6,860 volumes with an estimated total cost of more than $24,000, was the culmination of his lifetime of reading.