Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in September 1821 about library books. His words speak to us as library users and those of us interested in learning more about the recent Jefferson books found at the University of Washington in St. Louis. He said in that letter to his good friend: “Books constitute capital. A library book lasts as long as a house, for hundreds of years. It is not, then an article of mere consumption but fairly of capital, and often in the case of professional men, setting out in life, it is their only capital.”
Jefferson here discusses, not the public library, but the few individual libraries that existed then. Now we do have public libraries so that the “capital” has been shared among all who would want it. And luckily books do last “as long as a house.” Otherwise we may not have the collection that Ann Lucas, an International Center for Jefferson Studies scholar, and Endrina Tay, a Jefferson Library librarian, found recently at the University of Washington; these books made quite a road trip traveling from Monticello after Jefferson’s death to his granddaughter’s home in Massachusetts and then after her death heading west to St. Louis. This true story is reminiscent of Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book and is a story in progress. You can read more on the University of Washington’s website.
Ann was wondering what the other books, still unfound, would look like. Some circulated, and we, as public library users, can imagine what puddles, crayons, and highlighting can do. Some may have traveled even farther than St. Louis. Will we ever know their stories? Hopefully they are placed in a library somewhere, because even though the current owners may not realize they have “Jefferson” books, these books can still be considered capital for those that use them.