Discovery makes university third largest holder of Jefferson’s books

St. Louis, MO – February 21, 2011 – The Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Washington University in St. Louis announced today the discovery by Monticello scholars that a collection of books, long held in the libraries at Washington University in St. Louis, originally were part of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library.

These books, held at Washington University Libraries for 131 years, have been confirmed by Monticello scholars as having belonged to Thomas Jefferson himself. They are part of the university’s rare books collection, and were not previously identified by the books’ donor in 1880 as a part of Jefferson’s personal collection.

Monticello scholars identified several notable books among the 28 titles and 74 volumes, including:

  • Aristotle’s Politica, which was likely one of the last books Jefferson read before his death on July 4, 1826.
  • Architecture books used by Jefferson to design the University of Virginia, which, like Monticello, is recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site. Two of these volumes, Freart de Chambray’s Parallele de l'architecture antique avec la moderne and Andrea Palladio’s Architecture de Palladio, contenant les cinq ordres d'architecture contain a few notes and calculations made by Jefferson.
  • A tiny scrap of paper with Greek notes in Jefferson’s hand tucked in a volume of Plutarch’s Lives.

“Our discovery provides an amazing and intimate look into Jefferson’s world.  To find his handwritten notations is like peering over Jefferson’s shoulder to see his mind at work,” said Leslie Greene Bowman, President of Monticello and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.  “To uncover such a significant collection of Thomas Jefferson’s personal books is a breakthrough for scholars and ongoing research on Jefferson’s life.”

With this discovery, Washington University is now the third-largest holder of Jefferson’s books, after the Library of Congress and the University of Virginia.  This find establishes a new connection between Washington University and the ongoing research at Monticello, the center of Jefferson scholarship in Charlottesville, Va. 

“This is a wonderful discovery for Washington University and one of great significance to all scholars of American history,” says Mark S. Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University. “It is my hope that over time, this collection will help students and researchers better understand Thomas Jefferson and the literature that shaped his thinking about the world during the 19th century. This discovery underscores the important role all libraries play in preserving the great works of our past.”

Jefferson’s books were auctioned off in 1829 after his death to settle debts on his estate, Monticello. There are no known surviving records of the buyers, but a letter from Jefferson’s grandson-in-law, Joseph Coolidge, included a detailed listing of books he and his wife Ellen Wayles Coolidge wished to purchase from the sale.

The books were discovered by Monticello scholar Ann Lucas Birle, who found an article from 1880 that noted that the Coolidge family donated their library to Washington University. She shared this information with her colleague Endrina Tay, who has been tracking down all of the books Jefferson owned, read, and recommended during his lifetime.

Tay, who is building a publicly accessible inventory of Jefferson’s libraries, was able to authenticate the books by identifying the presence of Jefferson’s distinctive ownership mark in these books.

“Washington University is thrilled to have secured and preserved these volumes since 1880,” says Shirley K. Baker, vice chancellor for scholarly resources and dean of University Libraries at WUSTL. “It is particularly appropriate that these books should be here in Missouri. It was Jefferson who acquired this land in the Louisiana Purchase, and St. Louis was the jumping-off point for the expedition Jefferson sent to explore the new territory.”

The collection of Jefferson’s books is held within the University Libraries’ Special Collections.

“In addition to Washington University’s own faculty and students, the Washington University Libraries welcome researchers from around the world to work with these newly identified volumes,” Baker says.   

For more information about viewing the Jefferson collection, call Washington University Libraries Special Collections at (314) 935-5495.


Monticello is owned and operated by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc., which was founded in 1923. As a private, nonprofit 501(c)3 corporation, the Foundation receives no ongoing federal, state, or local funding in support of its dual mission of preservation and education.  For more information visit

Washington University in St. Louis
Washington University in St. Louis was founded in 1853 as a non-denominational community of scholars and now ranks among the nation’s leaders in higher education. The university’s undergraduate, graduate and professional programs are highly regarded. Its libraries’ hold distinguished collections of rare books, manuscripts and archives that draw scholars from around the world. For more information about the university and its libraries, visit and

Media Contacts:
Lisa Stites
Thomas Jefferson Foundation

Susan Killenberg McGinn
Washington University
in St. Louis