Thomas Jefferson Papers

81. A Bill for Establishing a Public Library, 18 June 1779

81. A Bill for Establishing a Public Library

Be it enacted by the General Assembly, that on the first day of January, in every year there shall be paid out of the treasury the sum of two thousand pounds, to be laid out in such books and maps as may be proper to be preserved in a public library,1 and in defraying the expences necessary for the care and preservation thereof; which library shall be established at the town of Richmond.

The two houses of Assembly shall appoint three persons of learning and of attention to literary matters, to be visitors of the said library, and shall remove them, or any of them, and fill any vacancies, from time to time, as they shall think fit; which visiters shall have power to receive the annual sums beforementioned, and therewith to procure such books and maps as aforesaid, and shall superintend the preservation thereof. Whensoever a keeper shall be found necessary they shall appoint such keeper, from time to time, at their will, on such annual salary (not exceeding one hundred pounds) as they shall think reasonable.

If during the time of war the importation of books and maps shall be hazardous, or if the rate of exchange between this commonwealth and any state from which such articles are wanted, shall from any cause be such that they cannot be imported to such advantage as may be hoped at a future day, the visiters shall place the annual sums, as they become due, in the public loan office, if any there be, for the benefit of interest, or otherwise shall suffer them to remain in the treasury until fit occasions shall occur of employing them.

It shall not be lawful for the said keeper, or the visiters themselves, or any other person to remove any book or map out of the said library, unless it be for the necessary repair thereof; but the same shall be made useful by indulging the researches of the learned and curious, within the said library, without fee or reward, and under such rules for preserving them safe and in good order and condition as the visiters shall constitute.

The visiters shall annually settle their accounts with the Auditors and leave with them the vouchers for the expenditure of the monies put into their hands.

Report description begins Report of the Committee of Revisors Appointed by the General Assembly of Virginia in MDCCLXXVI, Richmond, 1784 description ends , p. 58.

Bill presented by Madison 31 Oct. 1785, postponed 14 Dec. to next session, and brought up again on 1 Nov. 1786; apparently no further action was taken on it (JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (cited by session and date of publication) description ends , Oct. 1785, 1828 edn., p. 12–15, 92; same, Oct. 1786, p. 16–17).

1The phrase “public library” as here employed is not to be understood as meaning an institution similar to Benjamin Franklin’s Library Company of Philadelphia (which TJ must have become acquainted with on his trip north in 1766) or as having the connotation that public libraries later assumed. This Bill was the third part of his general system of education, and the function of TJ’s “public library” is to be explained in that context. In his Autobiography TJ stated that the three grades of education that he proposed were (1) schools for elementary purposes; (2) “Colleges for a middle degree of instruction”; and (3) “an ultimate grade for teaching the sciences generally, and in their highest degree”—this third grade being provided for in a Bill “for the establishment of a library” (Ford, description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, “Letterpress Edition,” N.Y., 1892–1899 description ends i, 66–7). In a more nearly contemporary account, TJ stated that this Bill “proposed … to begin a public library and gallery, by laying out a certain sum annually in books, paintings, and statues (Notes on Virginia, Ford, description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, “Letterpress Edition,” N.Y., 1892–1899 description ends iii, 255); however, the Bill provides only for the purchase of books and maps, making no mention of the acquisition of objects suitable to an art museum. The real object of his library was that “of indulging the researches of the learned and curious.” It was obviously not intended for the whole reading public or to meet the general reading requirements of the entire community, but to enable those of superior talent to give freer rein to their particular geniuses (see notes to Bill No. 79, above).

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