Sowerby Catalogue

In July 1942 the Library of Congress appointed bibliographer, Emily Millicent Sowerby, to prepare an annotated catalogue of the books that Thomas Jefferson sold to Congress in 1815. The work was to be completed and printed in time for the Bicentennial or 200th anniversary of Jefferson's birth in April 1943. What was intended to be completed in nine months took seventeen years to complete. The Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson[1] was eventually published in five large volumes between 1952 and 1959, with the first volume released as a belated observance of the sesquicentennial anniversary of the founding of the Library of Congress in 1800.

This bio-bibliography (as Sowerby called it) was intended to document the books in the 1815 sale arranged according to Jefferson's organizational scheme for his library. The project began as a straightforward alphabetical listing of Jefferson's books, but grew to encompass full bibliographical descriptions and detailed annotations for each of the volumes, along with acquisition information, quotes from Jefferson's correspondence, as well as biographical notes for authors of each work. It was Sowerby who proposed this expansion of scope and to have Jefferson "annotate the book entries himself." In her reflections on this undertaking delivered to members of the Bibliographical Society of America on May 4, 1956, Sowerby remarked that "the books in this catalogue are not only classified by subject, but are obviously entered in the order in which they should be studied, and to lose that into an alphabetical catalogue would be to lose Jefferson."[2]

Sowerby's work was primarily based upon Jefferson's surviving 1783 Catalog manuscript at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the 1815 printed Catalogue of the Library of the United States, as well as Jefferson papers and later Library of Congress printed catalogs after 1815. In expanding the work to include Jefferson's correspondence, Sowerby, with the help of a series of assistants, read and made extracts from the Jefferson manuscripts at the Library of Congress and the microfilm of his papers in a number of other public and private repositories.

Sowerby also worked with the over 2,000 surviving volumes of Jefferson's library extant at the Library of Congress. A Christmas Eve 1851 fire in the United States Capitol had destroyed much of the Library of Congress's 55,000-volume collection. Two-thirds of the over 6,500 books Jefferson had sold to Congress in 1815 were destroyed. This meant that Sowerby had only one-third of Jefferson's original collection available for reference when she set out to identify the exact titles and editions of Jefferson's books from the abbreviated short titles available in the 1815 printed catalog and Jefferson's 1783 Catalog. Jefferson's books had been evacuated from the Library during World War II. On their return after the war, they were placed in the stacks of the Rare Book Division. In the course of her work, Sowerby located between three to four hundred more of Jefferson's books in the general or Rare Book stacks at the Library. The challenges of locating Jefferson volumes among the some seven million books held at the time were compounded by the removal and loss of marks of Jefferson provenance as volumes in the general collection were routinely rebound during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at the Library of Congress, and bound pamphlet volumes were often broken apart and individual pamphlets scattered through the collection.

Jefferson created a "fair copy" of his 1783 Catalog in 1812. It is this later 1812 manuscript catalogue that he utilized to document the books he sold to Congress in 1815. This catalogue was sent with his library to Washington, D.C. It was subsequently retained by the Librarian of Congress, George Watterston, as his personal property, and is lost. From Jefferson's 1812 Catalogue, Watterston produced a print catalogue, Catalogue of the Library of the United States (1815), in which he rearranged the book entries alphabetically by title, thereby upsetting Jefferson's "sometimes analytical, sometimes chronological, & sometimes a combination of both"[3] subject arrangement that he had carefully devised. In 1823, Jefferson had Nicholas Philip Trist, his private secretary and future grandson-in-law, recreate his 1812 Catalogue. This 1823 manuscript catalogue in the hand of Trist was donated to the Library of Congress in 1917, but it remained unnoticed on the shelf till it was rediscovered in the 1980s, and is today known as the Trist Catalogue.

As such, it is important to note that Sowerby had neither Jefferson's 1812 Catalogue nor the Trist Catalogue at her disposal when she created her compilation. Having even one of these manuscripts would have been ideal for her purpose. She only had Jefferson's 1783 Catalog to rely on. Sowerby had to account for the additions and deletions in book entries from the time Jefferson switched to using his 1812 Catalogue to late 1814 when he offered to sell his library to Congress, since none of these entries were captured in the 1783 Catalog. In doing so, she listed additions towards the end of each chapter in her catalogue with the heading "Not in the Manuscript Catalogue" since these were not found listed by Jefferson in his 1783 Catalog. For entries that were listed in the 1783 Catalog but were subsequently missing from the 1815 printed catalogue, Sowerby listed these at the end of each chapter under a section entitled, "Books Listed in the 1783-1814 Catalogue Which Were Not Sold To Congress."

Reconstructing Jefferson's catalogue arrangement proved to be a major challenge for Sowerby. Watterston's 1815 printed catalogue had rearranged the order that Jefferson had in his 1812 Catalogue. The 1783 Catalog, on the other hand, was a working document utilized by Jefferson for some thirty years from around 1780 to 1812. Throughout this period, Jefferson made multiple erasures and additions for books he acquired while he was in Europe between 1784 to 1789, during his tenure as president of the United States for two terms between 1801 to 1809, and after his retirement and return to Monticello. When she began her reconstruction efforts, Sowerby assumed that Jefferson adopted the same organizational scheme in his 1812 Catalogue as the one he had utilized in his 1783 Catalog. This assumption proved to be unwise. After completing three volumes of her five-volume series, Sowerby realized that unlike the History and Philosophy sections in the first part, the books from subsequent sections of Jefferson's 1812 Catalogue were in fact ordered differently from what was in his earlier 1783 Catalog. Also, he had reclassified certain books and placed them under different chapters. The 1783 Catalog was divided into forty-six chapters, while the 1815 printed catalog had forty-four. In the preface to volume four, Sowerby wrote, "The divergence has become so marked that it is apparent that the revised "fair" copy of his catalogue made by Jefferson, and used during the negotiations for the sale, differed substantially from his earlier version.[4]

Despite the challenges faced by Sowerby, her completed bibliography was hailed by historians of the time as "monumental" and "tremendously valuable" to Jefferson scholarship.[5] Her work, however, was not without its flaws.

To describe works where Jefferson's copy was no longer extant, Sowerby had to base her bibliographic descriptions on similar copies of the same work that she could find either in the Library of Congress's collections, or else in various catalogues and printed bibliographies from libraries and institutions from around the world. Where she was unable to locate an extant copy of the exact edition that Jefferson had named, she would construct a "composite" or "hybrid" entry from other editions, changing the imprint to suit her purpose. As cautioned by James Gilreath in his 1984 review, "Sowerby Revirescent and Revised," users of Sowerby's catalogue "should at least use as much caution with it as they would with any thirty-year-old bibliography and should take advantage of resources which have appeared since the publication of Sowerby's work."[6] In his "Sowerby Revisited: The Unfinished Catalogue of Thomas Jefferson's Library," Douglas Wilson pointed out the inevitability in a work of such magnitude of "errors, omissions, and misleading statements, even though Sowerby's work is often characterized by care and accuracy."[7]

In her final foreword published in volume five, Sowerby summed up her work as follows, "It had been hoped, when this undertaking was started, to compile a definitive catalogue of the library sold to Congress in 1815 by Jefferson, fully annotated by himself and his correspondents. This has proved to be impossible."[8] Lamenting the difficulties she had faced with Jefferson's never-ending and much-scattered correspondence, her hope to compile a complete listing of Jefferson's books turned out to be harder to accomplish than she had expected. Still, she characterized her time working on the compilation as "a most delightful experience," one in which the close association with Mr. Jefferson himself, and with the scholars of the Library of Congress and elsewhere, had been "most educating and stimulating."

In 1983, to make her by then out-of-print work more readily accessible to scholars, book collectors, and libraries, the University Press of Virginia and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation produced a facsimile reprint of Sowerby's five volumes, which was described then as the best profile of Jefferson the Founding Father, intellectual giant and practical American "outside the six-volume Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by Dumas Malone."[9]


The catalogue is divided into three parts, namely History, Philosophy, and Fine Arts, in accordance with Jefferson's order - a classification scheme he adapted from Francis Bacon's Advancement of Learning (Book II) and Jean Lerond d'Alembert's Encyclop├ędie. These three divisions are subdivided into forty-four subjects or "chapters," in accordance with the scheme Jefferson developed for his library at Monticello.

Each book entry is headed by Jefferson's short title from his 1783 Catalog, followed by the title listing, page and number from the 1815 printed catalogue. The entries within each chapter are sequentially numbered, along with a serial (or Sowerby) number denoted in square brackets at the end of the entry that runs consecutively from the first volume through the fifth (and final) volume. Where possible, author and full title information are provided for each entry, along with copy and binding descriptions for extant Jefferson copies. This is followed by detailed annotations and extracts from Jefferson correspondence that shed light on not only what volumes Jefferson acquired, and where possible, where and why he acquired them, and how he made use of them.

To denote book entries where Jefferson's copy survives, Sowerby added the letter "J" before the short title at the beginning of that entry.


Digitized volumes of the Sowerby Catalogue from Library of Congress

Transcription of the Sowerby Catalogue

Search Sowerby Catalogue by keyword


1. E. Millicent Sowerby, Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson (Washington: Library of Congress, 1952-1959).

2. E. Millicent Sowerby, "Thomas Jefferson and His Library," Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America (1956): 213-228. Reprinted in The Bibliographical Society of America, 1904-79: A Retrospective Collection (Charlottesville: Published for the Bibliographical Society of America by the University Press of Virginia, 1980), 339-354.

3. Thomas Jefferson to George Watterston, 2 March 1816, Recipient copy, George Watterston Papers, Library of Congress. Polygraph copy in Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Published in PTJ:RS 9: 531-532. Transcription from Founders Online.

4. E. Millicent Sowerby, Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson (Washington: Library of Congress, 1952-1959), IV:vii.

5. James Gilreath, "Sowerby Revirescent and Revised," Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 78, no. 2 (1984): 219-232.

6. Ibid.

7. Douglas L. Wilson, "The Unfinished Catalogue of Thomas Jefferson's Library," The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 41 no. 1: 615-628.

8. E. Millicent Sowerby, Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson (Washington: Library of Congress, 1952-1959), V:vii.

9. E. Millicent Sowerby, Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983), I:vii.

back to top