Jefferson Library

Merit Award

When the original Library of Congress was burned by the British in 1812, Jefferson sold his personal library of about 6,500 individual volumes to the government to replace it. This became the seed of the huge collections at the Library today. The challenge of this project was to find a means to display this enormous number of books in a powerful and relevant way.

Much of what Jefferson did was influenced by what he learned through reading, including the words he chose for the Declaration of Independence. The design of a loose spiral of glass and paper takes 6,500 books and makes one gesture with them, bringing the visitor closer to understanding the mind of one of the most revered yet perplexing figures in American history.

The books themselves display their own origins through a simple visual convention. Half of the original collection was found to be missing, so the Library staff set out to complete the set. In this exhibit, volumes from the original set are unadorned, but new acquisitions have a golden bookmark. Missing books are indicated by a book-sized blank with the name on the spine.

The books require very serious conservation. For example, they cannot be squeezed too closely together, and so there are gaps in each shelf to allow the books to expand and contract. The cases are also designed to breathe and contain no off-gassing materials.

Jury Comments: 

"Standing in the middle of Jefferson's library – in a space that reinforces both the forms and the historical importance of the exhibit – must be amazing. What did this man, whose ideas had such impact on the course of history, read? I love that the paper sides as well as the bindings are visible."

"A wonderful single component to house 6,500 books, visible from both sides, letting the book itself become more of a 3-dimensional piece. An interesting solution for an architecturally powerful space."

Design Firm: 

Chermayeff & Geismar

Client: 

Library of Congress

Location City: 

Washington, DC

Project Area: 

N/A

Open Date: 

N/A

Project Budget: 

N/A

Photo Credits: 

N/A

Design Team: 

Jonathon Alger, Tom Geismar (Principals in Charge), David Gissen

Consultants: 

Weidlinger (Structural), Kugler Tillotson (Lighting)

Fabricators: 

Explus

Related Links: 

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