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Video: Thomas Jefferson books discovered

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    WILLIE GEIST, co-host: Back now at 8:43 on this Presidents Day morning. Following his death in 1826 , a number of books belonging to President Thomas Jefferson were considered lost to history, but thanks to some intrepid researchers, 74 of those books were recently discovered. Ann Lucas is from the International Center for Jefferson Studies , Shirley Baker is from Washington University . Good morning to you both.

    Ms. ANN LUCAS (International Center for Jefferson Studies): Good morning.

    Ms. SHIRLEY BAKER (Dean of Libraries, Washington University): Good morning.

    GEIST: Ann , let's start with you. This was a little bit of a historical mystery of sorts, we knew the books were out there, but you didn't quite know where they had ended up. So where did you begin to look for them?

    Ms. LUCAS: Exactly. Well, I'd been doing some research on Jefferson 's granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge , and we knew that she and her husband had purchased a sizable number of volumes from the auction after Jefferson 's death, and when I asked Coolidge descendants, I was getting -- coming up empty with answers. And I had a colleague, Endrina Tay , at the International Center , who was also tracking Jefferson 's volumes , and I had the lucky happenstance one day of hitting -- having a hit on Google Books when I was searching for information about Joseph Coolidge , Ellen 's husband, and up popped a reference to Joseph Coolidge 's library being given in 1880 to Washington University in St. Louis . And instantly...

    GEIST: It must have been exhilarating.

    Ms. LUCAS: It was. October 20th, you know, it's a day that's sort of seared into my memory. And when I took this to my colleague, the two of us said this makes perfect sense that they were somewhere safe, but someone we -- somewhere we never would have thought to look.

    GEIST: Now, Shirley , these books had been sitting in the library at Washington University in St. Louis for what, some 130 years?

    Ms. BAKER: A hundred and thirty years.

    GEIST: So how did you put two and two together, when did you realize you had a treasure on your hands?

    Ms. BAKER: Well, Ann talked with Erin Davis , our rare books curator, and said, 'Do you have a Coolidge collection?' And we didn't have records in the online catalog in those days for our donors, so we in the archives found records that in fact the books had come here, there were 3,000 of them...

    GEIST: Wow.

    Ms. BAKER: ...which doubled the library at the time. The students wrote about it in the student newspaper and they were very excited.

    GEIST: And Thomas Jefferson , Ann , leaves a mark that led you to know that these were the real thing.

    Ms. LUCAS: Exactly. So what we could do was we had a list of books that we knew the Coolidges bought and we could track their provenance from Joseph and Ellen Coolidge saying, 'These are the books we'd like,' these are the books that had been shipped to them, these are the books they've received. And so we sent them literally a list of call numbers for volumes and we said, 'Go ahead and pull these volumes and start looking for Jefferson 's mark.' And Jefferson marked his books in a way that was unique, not unusual, other people have done this, but the way he did it was he put a T in front of the I signature on a volume and an I after the T signature for his initials, I being the -- Latin for the J. So these are each marked with a T and a J in at least two places within the volumes . And we were getting e-mails back as they were pulling volumes and opening and examining and every day we'd have more and more and more coming back until we hit 74.

    GEIST: Wow . Shirley , let's talk about some of the books we have here. We know this is the architecture book...

    Ms. BAKER: Yes.

    GEIST: ...that led to one of the crowning achievements for Thomas Jefferson .

    Ms. BAKER: Exactly. Well, Ann can probably talk about that a little better because she's the Jefferson scholar.

    Ms. LUCAS: This...

    GEIST: So what are we looking at here, Ann ?

    Ms. LUCAS: ...this is a book by Freart de Chambray , and it's "Parallels of Architecture , Modern and Ancient ," and you can see Joseph Coolidge 's bookplate. This -- it's amazing that this is the one volume that has his bookplate and the original binding, and that we're so thrilled by this. And it is -- this is the volume that Jefferson would lend to his workmen who were building the University of Virginia .

    GEIST: So they actually used this as a guide to build Monticello .

    Ms. LUCAS: To build the...

    GEIST: To build the University of...

    Ms. LUCAS: ...to build the University of Virginia . And he also used this same volume to design Monticello ...

    GEIST: Right.

    Ms. LUCAS: ...and that earlier edition of it he sold to the Library of Congress . So he reacquired it for his work on the university . And you can see even here in the margin where he's marked some calculations so that he doesn't have to do that twice. And the wonderful thing is that for each of these volumes there are letters, drawings, these are all filling in pieces of puzzles for historians.

    GEIST: Shirley , what do we take away from some of these books as we look at the other ones? What do we learn about Thomas Jefferson with this discovery?

    Ms. BAKER: Well, the first thing that struck me was how important it was -- how interesting and important it was that they'd be in St. Louis , because Thomas Jefferson did the Louisiana Purchase ...

    GEIST: Right.

    Ms. BAKER: ...and the -- and so -- and he sent Lewis and Clark there to survey it. So finding what is now the third largest collection of Jefferson 's books in Missouri was particularly appropriate.

    GEIST: And they'll stay right there for now?

    Ms. BAKER: They will stay right here -- right there, yes.

    GEIST: Well, ladies, congratulations on the sleuth work...

    Ms. LUCAS: Thank you.

    GEIST: ...uncovering these books belonging to Thomas Jefferson . Incredible . Ann Lucas , Shirley Baker , thanks so much.

updated 2/23/2011 9:34:06 AM ET 2011-02-23T14:34:06

Dozens of Thomas Jefferson's books, some including handwritten notes from America's third president, have been found in the rare books collection at Washington University in St. Louis.

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Now, historians are poring through the 69 newly discovered books and five others the school already knew about, and librarians are searching the collection for more volumes that may have belonged to the founding father.

Even if no other Jefferson-owned books are found, the school's collection of 74 books is the third largest after the Library of Congress and the University of Virginia.

"It is so out of the blue and pretty amazing," said Washington University's rare books curator Erin Davis of the discovery that was announced on the U.S. holiday of President's Day.

The books were among about 3,000 that were donated to the school in 1880 after the death of Jefferson's granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, and her husband, Joseph Coolidge.

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There was no indication at the time that any of them had belonged to Jefferson. But it turns out that 2 ½ years after Jefferson's 1826 death, his library of 1,600 books was sold to settle debts. Ellen Coolidge's grandfather helped oversee her schooling when she lived at his mountain-top estate at Monticello when she was a teenager and young adult.

She was eager to acquire some of her grandfather's books, and her husband wrote her brother-in-law, Nicholas Trist, and told him what they wanted him to buy them at the auction. They were particularly interested in books that contained Jefferson's notes or other marks.

"My dear N. —I beg you to interest yourself in my behalf in relation to the books; remember that his library will not be sold again, and that all the memorials of T.J. for myself and children, and friends, must be secured now! This is the last chance!" the letter reads.

Two researchers, Ann Lucas Birle and Endrina Tay, began searching for what became of the couple's library last year. The researchers' big break came in October, when they learned the Coolidges' daughter and son-in-law had a relationship with one of the founders of Washington University and donated the books to the school.

In the hand-pressed books that were common in Jefferson's day, printers would place the letters of the alphabet — called signatures — at the bottom of some pages so that when the books were bound, the pages would be placed in the correct order. One way Jefferson marked his books was to place a small "T" in front of one of the "I" signature, which was significant because "I" is "J" in the Latin alphabet.

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"It was a little bit of detective work," said Anne Posega, head of special collections at Washington University Libraries.

Scholars traveled to St. Louis last week and spent three days confirming the books had belonged to Jefforson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. They never imagined they would find the books in one place.

"I think the assumption was either they were with the family or dispersed," Tay said.

Among the significant finds is an architectural book that Jefferson consulted when he designed the University of Virginia. Jefferson didn't write in his books as much as some of his contemporaries, but his handwriting is clearly visible in the book. In another book, they found a small scrap of paper with Greek notes in Jefferson's hand.

A few of the volumes have been placed on display, and the school is welcoming Jefferson scholars to review the newly discovered books. But the search is far from over.

"We think we are going to find more treasures," Tay said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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