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George Watterson Issues the First Extensive Catalogue of the Library of Congress


In November 1815 George Watterson, Librarian of Congress, published Catalogue of the Library of the United States. To Which is Annexed a Copious Index, Alphabeticaly Arranged. This work of 170 pages and 32 pages of index, was printed for Congress by Jonathan Elliot and issued from Washington. It represented the catalogue of the library of Thomas Jefferson, the foundation of the Library of Congress.

"In it each entry was numbered, not serially, but with the number corresponding with Jefferson's shelf-mark. This number was also inserted in the bookplate, purchased from William Elliot in October 1815, and pasted into each volume. The manuscript catalogue written by Jefferson and submitted to Congress for the purposes of the sale (through Samuel Harrison Smith) in 1814, seems to have been the 'fair copy of the Catalogue of my library' which he had made in 1812. This was later taken away by George Watterson and has now disappeared . . . [Another] catalogue was originally written by Jefferson in 1783, and is so dated by him on the fly-leaf; it was added to and supplemented continuously until the time of the negotiations for the sale in 1814' - Sowerby.

"The present catalogue differs dramatically in arrangement from Jefferson's original system of classification. Jefferson had organized his library according to a system derived from Book 2 of Francis Bacon's ADVANCEMENT OF LEARNING. Beginning with Bacon's three categories of knowledge (memory, reason, and imagination), Jefferson devised forty-four classes or 'chapters.' Within chapters, the books were arranged sometimes analytically, sometimes chronologically, or both, and were subjected to further classification by size. While this method served Jefferson well and offered illuminating intellectual bridges between diverse fields, Watterson recognized the difficulty the average patron might have in accessing the books for which he might be searching. To remedy this problem, in the present catalogue Watterson arranged the catalogue alphabetically within each chapter by first word of the title without being prejudiced towards definite and indefinite articles. Both Watterson and Jefferson realized the imperfections of this new system, but once in place it proved too large a task to rectify it" (William Reese Company, online description, accessed from ILAB website 07-21-2009).

In 1820 Congress published Supplement to the Catalogue of the Library of Congress. This 28-page pamphlet listed approximately 700 titles acquired since the acquisition of Thomas Jefferson's library, with a focus on travels and voyages, the sciences, and European history. Sabin 15566.

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