The 1828 Catalogue Project of the University of Virginia Law Library reconstructs the collection of legal texts purchased for the first U.Va. Library and listed in the University’s 1828 Library Catalogue. Most of the 8,000 books in the Catalogue were purchases made under the direction of Thomas Jefferson, and the 375 titles in the Law sections of the Catalogue provide insight into Jefferson’s ideas on American jurisprudence and legal education in his time. After fire and time scattered many of these foundational texts, the U.Va. Law Library has been working for the past forty years to collect exact duplicate editions of the Catalogue’s 375 legal titles. To date, the Law Library has collected 317 of these legal texts, and the search continues for the remaining books.

The 1828 Catalogue Project also reconstructs U.Va.’s historical legal library on a Virtual Bookshelf. This digital tool displays high-resolution images of the 1828 law books as they would have appeared on the Rotunda Library shelves and uses bibliographic information from the 1828 Catalogue to enable deep research into this historical book collection. By expanding access to these historical texts, this project aims to fulfill one of the Jefferson’s foundational goals for U.Va., that its library serve as a robust and open portal for scholarly knowledge.

Building the Library

In January 1819, the Virginia Assembly established the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, just a few miles from Monticello, and Jefferson believed the library would be a centerpiece of university life and lessons. By this time, he had already started designing the Rotunda as the focal point of the U.Va. Grounds. Modeled on the Pantheon, this domed building would house classrooms on the bottom two floors and the new library in the building’s dome room. Books would be shelved in two levels of galleries that wrapped around the Rotunda walls under the great dome. In the first years of construction, Jefferson remained vigilant in pushing for construction to begin on the library room: “Its wants will be felt as soon as the University shall open.” When the early funds appropriated from the Virginia Assembly left no money for items like “building the library and it’s library,” Jefferson lamented to Virginia state legislator Joseph Carrington Cabell that “it is vain to give us the name of an University without the means of making it so.”

As construction on the Rotunda proceeded slowly in 1825, Jefferson worked with University planners to build a space for the valuable new library that balanced the need for access with the need for security. With the library unfinished in March 1825, books began arriving from Cummings and Hilliard with no place to go, rendering them inaccessible to the first students enrolled at U.Va. that winter. “It would be worse than useless to procure books without a place to arrange them in,” Jefferson lamented to University Proctor Arthur Brockenbrough. Consequently, Jefferson worked with the Board of Visitors to prepare a temporary room in Pavilion VII on the West Lawn where the books could be shelved for patron use until the new Rotunda library was ready. Meanwhile, Jefferson asked Brockenbrough his thoughts on how they might secure the main entrance of the Rotunda library from the multitude of students and wanderers who would regularly traverse the building for class and study. Since the Rotunda would be open and in constant use, Brockenbrough replied, a partition would be necessary at the top of the steps leading into the library. This measure would “prevent any & every person from Entering except with the Librarian.”

In the fall of 1826, just a few months after Jefferson’s July 4th passing, workers finally moved the University library books into the completed Rotunda. Chairs and circular tables eventually furnished the library room, while the books filled the gallery shelves according to Jefferson’s catalog. The University of Virginia now had a library with nearly 8,000 volumes, equaling the libraries at Yale, Princeton, and Bowdoin College, and trailing only St. Mary’s in Maryland at 10,000 volumes and Harvard University at 30,000 volumes. The 732 individual books in the Law shelves made up nearly 10% of the entire library. In September 1826, Edgar Allen Poe, a U.Va. student of Ancient and Modern Languages, wrote to his stepfather with the welcome news that the Rotunda library was now open: “The books are removed into the library--and we have a very fine collection.”

Collecting the Books

Jefferson recognized that the books could not function as vessels of knowledge without enabling their easy use by university readers, and he had already informed Cummings and Hilliard of his preference for octavo editions “for the convenience with which it is handled, and the compactness and symmetry of arrangement on the shelves in the library.” In 1824, the University began its initial efforts to acquire the inventory of texts for the new library. At the start of that year, Jefferson sent Francis W. Gilmer to Europe with the joint mission of hiring the new university professors and purchasing library books, though Gilmer procured only a small selection of titles during his journey. Other early books for the library came by way of donation. In May 1825 Jefferson posted notice in the Richmond Enquirer and the Charlottesville Central Gazette soliciting further gifts so that the University could return students “with increased science and virtue, and qualified to succeed worthily to the future charge of its government, its liberty, its fame and prosperity.”

To acquire the bulk of the University library books, Jefferson hired Cummings, Hilliard & Company, booksellers in Boston, who appealed to Jefferson in particular because they maintained a large and established “correspondence in the different countries of Europe in the book-selling line.” Most of the books purchased by Cummings and Hilliard were published in Europe, and the majority of those (1070) were printed in England. Of the 378 law titles in the 1828 Catalogue, only 23 were published in the United States. The total University expenditure on its original 8,000-volume library and apparati for classrooms ultimately came to $35,947.38. In 2014 dollars, this expense would equal nearly $900,000.

As Jefferson compiled his 6,860-volume catalogue of books for Cummings and Hilliard to purchase for the new library, the introductory “Explanation of the Views on Which this Catalogue has been Prepared” outlined how this repository would help to ensure broad access to information and overcome disparities in private collections: “Great standard works of established reputation, too voluminous and too expensive for private libraries, should have a place in every public library, for the free resort of individuals.” Not only the great books, Jefferson wrote in this explanation, but the great books of the past should fill a library to “furnish a history of the advance of the science.” He grouped the 6,860 titles into three broad categories—History, Philosophy, Fine Arts—according to Jefferson’s interpretation of Francis Bacon’s partitions of the faculties of the mind in Bacon’s Advancement of Learning. Across these three categories, Jefferson divided the texts into forty-two chapters, similar to the cataloging practices he created and followed for his own libraries in previous years. Chapters ranged from modern and ancient histories, to the physical sciences, to moral and mathematical philosophy, to thirteen chapters in the fine arts. Though Jefferson recognized that his own “want of more familiar knowledge” of some subjects likely left the book lists in those chapters deficient, this catalog would give order to the breadth of information contained within the new library.

By organizing this large volume of books, library catalogs enabled their retrieval and, therefore, their use by library patrons. In January1825, Jefferson visited the boxes of books arriving from Gilmer’s European journey. Although eager to unpack and shelf them, Jefferson delayed this work until he had the library catalog that he had made for Gilmer back in hand. He wrote to Gilmer asking for its return: “Our books &c (8. boxes) are arrived….we cannot take them out for want of the catalogue; because if we do not assort them under their proper heads of arrangement when first taken out, it would be infinitely difficult afterwards.” After the students arrived for the first semester at the university in the spring of 1825, the first university librarian began work on a new catalog of the library’s growing inventory coming from Gilmer and from the first purchases made by Cummings and Hilliard. This catalog used the same organizational 42-chapter organizational scheme as Jefferson’s catalog for Cummings and Hilliard. The first librarian poured over it weekly, he assured Jefferson, in the hopes that would improve his library management to Jefferson’s high standards.

The variety of books in this catalog reflected the “liberal” education that Jefferson hoped students would receive at the University of Virginia. Students would not be required to follow a proscribed curriculum and a set reading list, as they were at Harvard and many other colleges at the time. Instead, Jefferson designed an elective curriculum that gave students “uncontrouled choice in the le[. . .] they shall chuse to attend.” Law would be one school among eight at U.Va from which students could choose their classes.

Jefferson included 378 law texts in his 1825 catalogue to Cummings and Hilliard, categorized under chapters for Law-Nature & Nations, Law of Equity, Law-Common, Law-Merchant, Law-Maritime, Law-Ecclesiastical, and Law-Foreign. He believed the most important texts for law classes would be those that outlined and provided commentary on English laws leading up to seventeenth-century reign of James I, when the American colonies broke from “English legislation, and acknolege no subsequent statuary alterations.” As the highest priority, Jefferson instructed Cummings and Hilliard to purchase A Systematic Arrangement of Lord Coke's First Institute of the Laws of England by John Henry Thomas, which Jefferson believed “will in fact be the elementary book of the school.” He wrote to James Madison of this text: “a sounder whig never wrote, nor of profounder learning in the orthodox doctrines of the British constitution, or in what were called English liberties.” Jefferson regretted that this long-time foundational text of American legal education had lost its prominence due to the “Mansfieldism of Blackstone.” Alongside Coke’s Systematic Arrangement, Jefferson instructed Cummings and Hilliard to prioritize for the law library the purchase of law dictionaries, equity case reports from the British High Court of Chancery, Coke’s First Institutes, Francis Bacon’s A New Abridgement of the Law, William Blackstone’s Commentaries—though specifically not the edition by Virginian St. George Tucker—Richard Wooddeson’s Lectures on the Laws of England, and all tracts by Baron Geoffrey Gilbert. To guide Cummings and Hilliard in selecting the best editions of these books when Jefferson’s Catalogue did not specify this information, Jefferson pointed the booksellers to John Clarke’s Complete Catalogue of the Common and Statute Law-books of the United Kingdom.

Using the Library

At their March 1825 meeting, the University’s Board of Visitors, with Jefferson in attendance, established stringent rules for the use of library books that would protect these shared academic resources. The regulations gave professors “free use” of library materials as long as they left a note for the librarian. Students, alternatively, faced tighter restrictions. They could not be lent books deemed rare, valuable, or delicate, they needed a written permission slip from a professor for each title they borrowed, and they faced stiff fines if they damaged a book or did not return a book by its due date.

To make sure that library books remained safe and orderly inside the library, the Board of Visitors set down equally stringent rules for library visitors. The librarian would only attend the library for one hour on one day each week to lend books and receive borrowed items. Students were not allowed in the library except in the presence of the librarian or a professor, and they could not “remain in the room to read or consult any book but during such presence.” Approved “Strangers” could visit the library, but they could take books from the shelves only when accompanied by the librarian, and University rules required them to consult, read, and take notes from library books at an assigned table under the librarian’s supervision. The librarian would keep an account of the books lent and returned “so that it may always be known in whose hands every book is.”

To manage the University book collection, Jefferson sought for a librarian “a man of high order of science and able to give to enquirers an account of the character and contents of the several books under his care.” Jefferson originally expected a professor to take on this post as a side job, but when no one from the faculty showed any interest, the University looked to a student to manage the library part time as he pursued his studies. Jefferson gave the post to John Vaughn Kean who would be starting as a student at the University of Virginia for its inaugural semester in February 1825. In his letter of appointment to Kean, Jefferson informed the young librarian that he was to “keep the books in a state of sound preservation undefiled and free from injury by moisture or other accident.” He instructed Kean to keep the books “in their stated arrangement, on the shelves, according to the method and order of their Catalogue.” Jefferson pointed Kean to the recent printing of the University library guidelines and expected that Kean would uphold the rules with the “strictest observance.”

Kean accepted the position but struggled to manage the large collection of books, especially among student patrons who wanted more liberty to peruse the stacks than the University rules allowed. Despite Kean’s determination to familiarize himself with the collection by reading through his library catalog weekly, Jefferson found the library in a state of disorder during a May 1825 visit. Kean informed him that the students had been careless in returning books to the shelves, prompting Jefferson to pull out the library rules and read Kean the clause that students should not use the library but in the presence of the librarian. From this reading Kean realized that Jefferson expected him to “attend each student to the shelf, or he is not to look into such works as he wishes,” and Kean gently informed Jefferson that already among the students “there is complaint for the want of license with regard to the library.” Jefferson wrote back allowing Kean to make exceptions to this rule as he saw fit, but he warned Kean that strict rules like this were in place at “all considble[sic] libraries because a book misplaced is in fact lost.”

The 1828 Catalogue

In December 1826, with the Rotunda library now open, U.Va. faculty instructed the new university librarian William Wertenbaker to prepare a comprehensive catalogue of the U.Va. library. They assigned Professors Key and Dunglison to oversee this work, and they requested paper from the U.Va. Proctor sufficient to print 500 copies. The organizational scheme of the library remained much as Jefferson had designed it. Although Wertenbaker and his faculty advisors did away with Jefferson’s three-part categorization under History, Philosophy, and Fine Arts, they retained his chapter classifications condensed from Jefferson’s forty-two chapters down to twenty-nine. Most of this organizational change came in the former Fine Arts section, where Wertenbaker combined individual chapters for different forms of literature and literary criticism into a new single chapter for “Miscellaneous, Including Poetry, Rhetoric, Education, etc.” Within each chapter, Wertenbaker alphabetized the books by author, doing away with Jefferson’s self-described arrangement strategy of “sometimes, analytical, sometimes chronological, and sometimes a combination of both.” Finally, in 1828, the completed 114-page Catalogue went to print at the local Charlottesville printing house of Gilmer, Davis & Company. The 1828 Catalogue remained the authoritative organizational schema for the U.Va. library until the 20th century.

The 1828 Catalogue, however, remained an imperfect tool for accessing library materials. The lack of notations about book placement within the library hampered efficient book retrieval. Frederick Page, who assisted Wertenbaker at the university library, recalled that Wertenbaker, the author of the 1828 Catalogue, could enter the library room in the dark and locate any book he wanted. Page, meanwhile, with no location aid from the Catalogue, “was often at a loss.” New acquisitions would be written on blank leaves within a printed copy of the 1828 Catalogue. This practice lasted until 1857, when the collection had already grown to 30,000 volumes, making the Catalogue’s usefulness “somewhat marred,” recalled Page. When Wertenbaker visited the centennial celebration in Philadelphia in 1876 and left the library in Page’s hands, the ensuing chaos in the library made the university acutely aware of the deficiencies of the 1828 Catalogue in enabling library use by anyone who had not spent their career shelving these books. Only then, fifty years after the library’s opening, did staff go through the library shelves and mark book locations in the margins of the Catalogue.