The 1828 Catalogue Project of the University of Virginia Law Library reconstructs the collection of legal texts purchased for the first UVA 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 UVA 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.

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.” 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. 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

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.

The variety of books in the first UVA library 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 UVA from which students could choose their classes. Jefferson included 378 law texts in the wish list of books he prepared for catalogue to Cummings and Hilliard in 1825, 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.

The 1828 Catalogue

In December 1826, with the Rotunda library now open, UVA faculty instructed the new university librarian William Wertenbaker to prepare a comprehensive catalogue of the UVA library. They assigned Professors Key and Dunglison to oversee this work, and they requested paper from the UVA 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 UVA 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.