Massachusetts Historical Society

Thomas Jefferson Papers

Timeline Relating to Thomas Jefferson's Catalogs of Books
Timeline compiled by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

An avid book collector, Thomas Jefferson assembled at least three libraries over the course of his life. He often compiled catalogs of his libraries, and he arranged these catalogs according to a classification scheme that divided the books into three main categories: History, Philosophy, and Fine Arts. Jefferson had adapted his scheme from Francis Bacon's three categories of knowledge--Memory, Reason, and Imagination--outlined in The Advancement of Learning. Within Jefferson's three main divisions, he subdivided his catalogs into chapters. Some catalogs contain 46 chapters; others contain 44 chapters.


A fire at Shadwell, the estate belonging to Thomas Jefferson's parents, destroys Jefferson's earliest library, comprised of books he assembled during his education, legal training, and early career.

circa 1775-1812

Within a manuscript volume, Jefferson creates a working list of his library and writes the titles of books he owned and tracked books he wished to purchase.

This 246-page manuscript volume, "1783 Catalog of Books," is part of the Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts. Digital images are available within this website, 1783 Catalog of Books.

March 6, 1783

On page 5 of the "1783 Catalog of Books", Jefferson states that he owns 2,640 books.

circa 1789

Jefferson assembles a small unbound manuscript catalog, 50 pages, apparently of books that he wants to purchase.

This manuscript volume, "1789 Catalog of Books" is part of the Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts. Digital images are available within this website, 1789 Catalog of Books.

circa 1812

Jefferson creates a handwritten copy of his library catalog. (This is the catalog that Jefferson sends to Samuel H. Smith on September 21, 1814.)

September 21, 1814

Jefferson sends the manuscript catalog he created circa 1812 along with a letter to Samuel H. Smith, who had agreed to arrange for the sale of Jefferson's personal library to the Library of Congress. (Earlier in the year, Jefferson decided to make this offer after he learned the Library of Congress was destroyed when the British army burned the Capitol building.)

It is believed that George Watterston retained the original handwritten catalog after he left his position as Librarian of Congress in 1829; the current location of the manuscript catalog is unknown.


In January, Congress approves the purchase of Jefferson's library. Jefferson arranges for his library to be packed and shipped, and in May the books arrive in Washington D.C.


George Watterston, the Librarian of Congress, arranges the publication of Catalogue of the Library of the United States: To Which is Annexed, a Copious Index, Alphabetically Arranged, (Washington: printed by Jonathan Elliot, 1815).

Although this publication lists the titles of the books in the library Jefferson sold to the Library of Congress earlier in the year, it is important to note that the entries are listed under each chapter in alphabetical order by title, rather than in the order Jefferson listed in the manuscript catalog he assembled circa 1812.

circa 1823

Nicholas Trist, working at Jefferson's request, makes a replica of the catalog that was sent to Washington when Jefferson offered to sell his library to Congress.

This bound manuscript catalog, 113 pages, is held by the Library of Congress. (LC Control number 87204942.) It lists the books according to Jefferson's carefully worked-out original order. Most likely Jefferson annotated a copy of the catalog published in 1815, and this was the basis for Trist's manuscript catalog. A published edition exists, Thomas Jefferson's Library: A Catalog with the Entries in His Own Order, edited by James Gilreath and Doug Wilson (Washington: Library of Congress, 1989).


A catalog listing the final library that Jefferson assembled (consisting of volumes he accumulated after he sold his personal library to Congress in 1815) is published, Catalogue of President Jefferson's library : A catalogue of the extensive and valuable library of the late President Jefferson (copied from the original ms., in his handwriting, as arranged by himself) to be sold at auction..., by Nathaniel Poor (Washington, D.C.: printed by Gales and Seaton, 1829).

Suggestions for Further Reading

A thorough overview of Jefferson's book collecting and arranging appears in "Jefferson's Libraries," by Douglas Wilson, in Thomas Jefferson: A Reference Biography, edited by Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1986).

The multivolume Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, originally published 1952-1959, is annotated with extensive entries describing the books Jefferson sold to the Library of Congress in 1815. Using the manuscript volume, "1783 Catalog of Books," and the 1815 publication, Catalogue of the Library of the United States, editor E. Millicent Sowerby approximated Jefferson's original order. Reprint: Library of Congress, Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, volumes I-V, compiled with annotations by E. Millicent Sowerby (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983).

For commentary about Sowerby's ambitious but somewhat problematical work, please refer to "Sowerby Revisted: The Unfinished Catalogue of Thomas Jefferson's Library," by Douglas L. Wilson, William and Mary Quarterly, third series, vol. 41, pp. 615-628.

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