Thomas Jefferson, Dining Alone

At a dinner honoring 49 Nobel Laureates on April 29, 1962, John F. Kennedy said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Founding Father and author of The Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson serves as one of the most influential Americans of all time. Many lists rank him among the best presidents of all time, while others argue that he was a better philosopher than he was king. Regardless of the differing opinions, however, everyone agrees that Jefferson was a scholar and an intellectual. Jefferson even said, “I cannot live without books,” which naturally drove people to question: what did he read?

In an effort to answer this resounding inquiry, the Library of Congress created an ongoing exhibit of his private library that opened on April 11, 2008, entitled “Thomas Jefferson’s Library.” While the exhibit can still be viewed in person, I am going to examine the online website, which gives a brief overview of the elements featured.

Jefferson divided his personal collection of books into three separate categories, creating a modified version of the organizational system employed by the British philosopher Francis Bacon. Instead of delineating his collection into “Memory,” “Reason,” and “Imagination,” as Bacon did, Jefferson divided his books into, “History,” “Philosophy,” and “Fine Arts.” Interestingly, the Library of Congress exhibit divides the different tabs (featuring the various collections) using Bacon’s system, as demonstrated by image 1 below. I’m sure they have a reason for employing this system instead of Jefferson’s, but it would be helpful to the viewer if they could make their reasoning known. Without a justifiable explanation, it appears that the website is foregoing Jefferson’s creation for Bacon’s tradition.

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Image from the Library of Congress online exhibit, entitled “Thomas Jefferson’s Library.”

Furthermore, since this is modeled after the in-person exhibit, they have not put as much time or effort into creating a unique and memorable online experience for the viewer. In many ways, the design of the website proves practical and pragmatic, well laid out but not highly innovative or engaging, as evidenced by image 2 of the home page featured below. The Library of Congress features a large number of exhibits, so it’s natural that less time gets dedicated to each online webpage.

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Image from the Library of Congress online exhibit, entitled “Thomas Jefferson’s Library.”

When examining one of the themes more closely, in this case “Reason,” the online website features photographs of the different books. However, the viewer must click on each photograph individually, instead of being able to view them in succession, as evidenced by image 3 of the cataloguing system.

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Image from the Library of Congress online exhibit, entitled “Thomas Jefferson’s Library.”

But, aside from these technical shortcomings, the website does a good job of describing each item and giving a brief examination of its place within the larger collection and, ultimately, the exhibit. An example of the thoughtful descriptions for each book can be seen on image 4, featured below.

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Image from the Library of Congress online exhibit, entitled “Thomas Jefferson’s Library.”

Overall, I found the website to be an effective means of capturing the in-person exhibit and, while I had my initial reservations, I recognized that it successfully served its purpose. It gave the viewer a taste of the larger exhibit and demonstrated the continued influence of Thomas Jefferson, a great American figure.

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