Massachusetts Historical Society

Thomas Jefferson Papers

Thomas Jefferson
1783 Catalog of Books, [manuscript], [circa 1775-1812]
From the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts.

Summary description

This 246-page manuscript volume, the 1783 Catalog of Books, forms part of the Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts. This volume is Thomas Jefferson's working list of the books in his personal library. Although the date in the supplied title comes from the manuscript volume (on page 5, Jefferson wrote the total number of volumes he owned as of March 6, 1783), the handwriting indicates that Jefferson began using the book much earlier and continued to use it over many years to track volumes he owned and wished to purchase.

Jefferson's first collection of books (stored at his parents' estate, Shadwell) was destroyed by fire in 1770. Jefferson probably started the 1783 Catalog of Books in the 1770s after he began assembling his second library. By March 1783, Jefferson owned 2,640 books. (See page 5 of the volume.) Jefferson also states on page 5 that a checkmark was placed before each title he owned, and that titles without marks indicated books that he hoped to obtain. As the years went by, Jefferson continued to add to his library. As a working list, the 1783 Catalog of Books includes many insertions and shows some erasures (titles that seem to have been scratched off of some pages). When he sold his library to the Library of Congress in 1815, it comprised 6,700 books.

Jefferson arranged his 1783 Catalog of Books into three main sections--History, Philosophy, and Fine Arts--adapted from the three categories outlined by Francis Bacon in The Advancement of Learning: Memory, Reason, and Imagination. Within Jefferson's three main divisions, he subdivided his catalog into 46 chapters: Ancient history, Modern history (Foreign, British, and American), Ecclesiastical history, Natural Philosophy, Agriculture, Chemistry, Surgery, Medicine, Anatomy, Zoology, Botany, Mineralogy, Technical arts, Ethics, Religion, Equity, Law (Common, Mercantile, Maritime, Ecclesiastical, and Foreign), Politics, Commerce, Arithmetic, Geometry, Mechanics (and Statistics, Pneumatics, Phonics, and Optics), Astronomy, Geography, Gardening, Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Poetry (Epic, Romance, Tragedy, Comedy, Dramatic, and Didactic), Oratory, Criticism, and Polygraphical (books covering several categories). Pages 10, 11, and 12 of the 1783 Catalog of Books show Jefferson's handwritten classification scheme. To browse by these subject categories, please refer to Jefferson's classification scheme.

The 1783 Catalog of Books should not be confused with the 50-page manuscript volume, 1789 Catalog of Books (also part of the Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts), nor with three other versions of the library catalog. For more information, please refer to a Timeline Relating to Thomas Jefferson's Catalogs of Books for brief descriptions of several catalogs arranged in chronological order.

Physical description of manuscript volume

The 1783 Catalog of Books is a bound volume and has 246 pages. It does not have a formal title page, and each page measures approximately 4 3/4 X 7 1/4 inches.

In 2000, the volume was disbound by the Massachusetts Historical Society conservation staff. Individual pages were cleaned, deacidified, and repaired and reinforced with Japanese tissue paper and wheat paste. The conservator added hinges along the spine for the eventual rebinding of the volume. Digitization project staff scanned the pages and then a conservation bookbinder rebound the volume.

Use of the images

Permission to reproduce images of manuscripts and/or publish transcriptions of collections must be obtained in writing from the Massachusetts Historical Society. Please forward requests to the Reference Librarian, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1154 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02215, or send an email message to:

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