Jefferson-Gate!

By Plotnik, Art | American Libraries, December 1987 | Go to article overview

Jefferson-Gate!


Plotnik, Art, American Libraries


Jefferson-gate!

A FORMER LIBRARY OF CONGRESS executive has blown the lid off what might have been the biggest coverup in the history of LC funding. At stake is the integrity of the Library's very origins and the honesty of Thomas Jefferson's friends in Congress.

A good "gate' or "scam' is exactly what the library profession needs to liven up its literature. But alas, bibliographic fraud is small potatoes these days--nor did anyone seem to care much about it in 1815, when it happened, if it happened.

Charles Goodrum, retired assistant director of LC's Congressional Research Service, has revealed and partly documented the possible scam in his latest book, The Best Cellar (St. Martin's, 1987). Author Goodrum is the foremost popular chronicler of LC, and his passions for that institution brighten two earlier nonfiction works. He has also created a fictional alter-LC, the Werner Bok Library of Washington, D.C., as the setting for a series of light mysteries. The Best Cellar, part of that series, features one killing, and one particular collection of books that inspired the foul deed. The collection: Some 3,000 volumes constituting the original Library of Congress, ca. 1814.

Official Library of Congress history says these books--a well balanced group acquired over 14 years--were destroyed when British troops burned the Capitol in August 1814. Hearing of the loss, the story goes, Thomas Jefferson quickly offered to sell his 6,487-volume personal library as a replacement.

After some resistance in the House, Congress appropriated $23,950 to acquire the Jefferson library--a founding collection that affected the shape of LC for decades to come. Goodrum, however, suggests a different story. Basing his case on federal documents rediscovered in 1981, he argues that the Congress's original 3,000 volumes might never have burned! Instead, they might have been carted to a safe hiding place, where they survived the British invasion. Further, he theorizes that their survival was possibly covered up by Jefferson's old pals in Congress. …

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