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Buried Treasures: Students Showcase Jefferson’s Architectural Books During Visit by Library of Congress Chief

Nov. 02, 2011

Prerna Choudhury ’12

Mark Dimunation2

What do Thomas Jefferson and the art library at Oberlin have in common? Books. Old books. Especially those dealing with architecture and landscape.

For the next two weeks, 22 books from Oberlin’s Jefferson Architectural Books Collection will be showcased in Mudd Center. The exhibition will be curated by students of John Harwood, associate professor of modern and contemporary architectural history. The exhibition coincides with a campus visit by Mark Dimunation, chief of rare books and special collections at the United States Library of Congress. Dimunation will present “Forged in Fire: The Jefferson Collection at the Library of Congress,” at 8 p.m. Saturday, November 5, in the Root Room of the Carnegie Building. The talk is free and open to the public.
A specialist in 18th- and 19th-century English and American printing, Dimunation is responsible for the largest collection of rare books in North America. One of Dimunation’s primary efforts at the Library of Congress has been to recreate Jefferson’s personal library in Monticello, a wide-ranging collection of almost 6,500 volumes that Jefferson assembled over a span of approximately 50 years. Dimunation lectures frequently in the United States and abroad on topics related to rare books, the history of the book, and the history of printing. Dimunation was previously curator of rare books at the Carl A. Kroch Library at Cornell University and assistant head of special collections at Stanford. While on campus, Dimunation will also participate in Harwood’s class and conduct a master class for faculty on teaching with rare books and special collections materials.

Thomas Jefferson sold his personal library of 6,487 volumes to the United States Congress in 1815. The foundation of today’s Library of Congress, Jefferson’s library replaced the fledgling Library of Congress destroyed by the British during the War of 1812. Unfortunately, a fire four decades later destroyed nearly two-thirds of the volumes Congress had purchased from Jefferson.

Today, the Library of Congress continues to reconstruct Jefferson’s complete library. In 1916, legendary Oberlin professor and art museum director Clarence Ward led an effort to recover the lost books in Jefferson’s collection dealing with architecture and landscape aesthetics, which Ward considered the most important of the arts. “Although Ward had more contemporary resources, the painstaking process of reconstructing this portion of Jefferson’s library was a means of pulling together an authoritative basis for modern artistic and technical knowledge about architecture, landscape, decorative and mechanical arts, and fine arts,” says Harwood. Today, this collection, known as the Jefferson Architectural Books Collection, is housed in the special collections of Oberlin’s Clarence Ward Art Library.

Ray English, the director of libraries, notes that the books in Oberlin’s Jefferson architecture collection were all printed in Jefferson’s era or earlier “Although Oberlin has focused on one part of Jefferson’s library, the college is pursuing the same goal as the Library of Congress, but on a smaller scale,” English says. “Books related to architecture are also fine examples of the history of printing and the book arts, both of which are a strong interest to Dimunation and the Library of Congress.”

Today, the only places other than Oberlin where more volumes from the Jefferson architectural books collection can be found are the Library of Congress and the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University. Oberlin is the only academic institution that focuses on rebuilding part of Jefferson’s collection, and has 63 of the original 67 architectural volumes. The most recent addition to Oberlin’s collection is a first edition of Claude Perrault’s 1674 abridged version of Vitruvius’ *De Architectura*. The college purchased the book in 2005 with the help of Friends of the Library, an organization that supports special acquisitions and programs that help Oberlin’s library fulfill its fundamental role in the academic life of the college.

“These books are normally locked away in cases, and people are unaware of this amazing resource available right on campus,” says Harwood. “They’re buried treasures.”

While discussing the collection’s teaching potential with English, Harwood had an idea for a class. Arts 317: Jefferson Architectural Books Collection introduces students to the study of books and gives them an opportunity to coordinate and curate an exhibition.

Harwood chose 22 books from the collection to be exhibited. He based his choices on the books’ overall importance to architectural history, the importance of the books to Jefferson himself, and the artistic quality that went into the production of the book. From that group, students chose one or two books to focus on.

For the exhibition, senior Saul Alpert-Abrams, a Greek language and literature major from Harvard, Massachusetts, selected De Architectura. “My job through the semester has been to learn as much as I can about these books—the history of the author, the underlying social and political conflicts reflected in the seemingly calm, well-crafted theories presented, and among other things, the books’ reception and influence on architects and thinkers in later years,” says Alpert-Abrams.

Alpert-Abrams and his fellow students condensed all of the information they have learned into short descriptions, writing labels to describe the intellectual and aesthetic value of the books. The final step in this interactive introduction to curatorial practice was organizing the exhibition itself. Such details as arranging the books in an aesthetically pleasing fashion, making appropriate book stands for each volume, and choosing the page that would be open for the public to read were among the many responsibilities of the Arts 317 students.

Students also created digital versions of some of the books for visitors to view on an iPad, a modern mode of interaction with these ancient volumes, which date from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Many of the books are first editions or first editions of foreign language translations. “Old books are like old memories that have been discovered and rediscovered, sometimes by accident, sometimes with purpose, through the ages,” says Alpert-Abrams. “The pages are sometimes torn, dirtied with finger oil. There are sometimes annotations in them, little glimpses into the concerns of a person in a different time and place, with a mindset shaped by politics we now strive to reconstruct.

“Our libraries can often seem like grand, impersonal, repositories. But to see that within this there exists a small, dear collection of books, themselves marvellous pieces of art and history, is to have faith that there is still love for the printed word. These books are a testament as well to the history of Oberlin, and provide a glimpse at the founding ideologies of the college.”

The exhibition showcasing the Jefferson Architectural Books Collection will be displayed on the first floor of Mudd from October 27 to November 11. Students will present the books on Friday, November 5 at 4:30 p.m. in Mudd’s academic commons. Mark Dimunation will attend these presentations and will speak at 8 p.m. in the Carnegie Building’s Root Room. Both events are free and open to the public, as is admission to the exhibition.

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