Tag Archives: Libraries

What does a local library mean for US? Part 1 of 4

[Your letter] informs me of the establishment of the Westward mill library society, of it’s general views & progress. I always hear with pleasure of institutions for the promotion of knolege among my countrymen. the people of every country are the only safe guardians of their own rights, and are the only instruments which can be used for their destruction. and certainly they would never consent to be so used were they not decieved. to avoid this they should be instructed to a certain degree …
To John Wyche, May 19, 1809

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders always promote the broad education of their constitutents.
A portion of this letter was excerpted in a 2013 post. Since we are reviewing all of the significant correspondence of Jefferson’s first year of retirement, we will look at the entire letter, broken into four posts.

Wyche wrote at length to Jefferson about the formation of a library in Brunswick County, VA, on the VA/NC border, about 70 miles south of Richmond. Local citizens had adopted a constitution and pledged $10 each to acquire books. He was seeking the retired President’s “patronage.” He did not specify what that might be though financial support might have been a likely goal.

Jefferson opened with why he liked libraries. He supported any institution which promoted knowledge among his countrymen – schools, colleges, academic societies, even churches (to some degree). People were “the only safe guardians of their own rights,” and the only ones who could take them away. Protecting those rights and defeating those who would deny them required an educated citizenry. Libraries furthered that end.

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What’s the most good for the least expense?

I always hear with pleasure of institutions for the promotion of knowledge among my countrymen. The people of every country are the only safe guardians of their own rights, and … they should be instructed to a certain degree. I have often thought that nothing would do more extensive good at small expense than the establishment of a small circulating library in every county, to consist of a few well-chosen books, to be lent to the people of the county … such as would give them a general view of other history, and particular view of that of their own country, a tolerable knowledge of Geography, the elements of Natural Philosophy, of Agriculture and Mechanics.
To John Wyche, May 9, 1809

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Secure leaders want their followers to be very well-informed!
Jefferson was responding to Wyche’s letter two months earlier, when he wrote about the establishment of a local library society. Jefferson couldn’t have been more pleased!

A well-informed citizenry was essential for the preservation of America’s still young republican (small r) government. Outside of a general system of universal public education, for which he had lobbied unsuccessfully in Virginia for over 30 years, what better way to achieve that end than a lending library in every county! The minimal offerings should be:

– History in general
– America’s history in particular
– Geography, a sense of place
– Natural philosophy (science)
– Agriculture, how we feed ourselves
– Mechanics, how things work

Just two months before, Jefferson had retired from the Presidency. Among the pleasures he enjoyed as a private man was daily access to his own library of some 6,500 books, the largest collection in America.

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I just want you to know …

Very early in the course of my researches into the laws of Virginia, I observed that many of them were already lost, and many more on the point of being lost, as existing only in single copies …
This leads us then to the only means of preserving those remains of our laws now under consideration, that is, a multiplication of printed copies. I think therefore that there should be printed at public expense, an edition of all the laws ever passed by our legislatures which can now be found; that a copy should be deposited in every public library in America, in the principal public offices within the State, and some perhaps in the most distinguished public libraries of Europe, and that the rest should be sold to individuals, towards reimbursing the expences of the edition …
To George Wythe, January 16, 1796

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders appreciate a government of laws, not of men.
George Wythe was Jefferson’ mentor and friend, directed his study to become a lawyer, and was a co-signer of the Declaration of Independence. During the Revolutionary War, Jefferson devoted himself to a revision of the laws of Virginia, many which existed only as a single copy. Other laws, he feared, were lost forever. To combat this, he proposed printing at public expense “all the laws every passed by our legislatures,” a work that might be contained in four volumes.
This was practical, not just some academic exercise. He wanted that work placed in every public library in the nation, in Virginia’s public offices, even in the best libraries of Europe. In other words, he wanted the laws to be distributed as widely as possible, accessible by all.
Ever conservative about public expenditures, some of the printing cost might be recaptured by selling copies, too.

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