Tom Camden could have pinched himself.
After a day spent combing through Richmond Public Library's special collections books, he stared long and hard at the swirling cursive words inscribed in the front of a small, oddly shaped tome. In French, most were a mystery — except three: “Monsieur Thomas Jefferson.”
The words clearly were an inscription from the author in a book presented as a token of appreciation. The recipient was clearly the third president of the United States.
To make certain, Camden, director of special collections at the Library of Virginia, quickly flipped through the book looking for two marks that are proof of gold among book collectors.
Jefferson, always somewhat mysterious in his habits, rarely if ever wrote his name in his books. Instead, he would go to small letters in the margins placed there to show the page order for book binders — specifically to the “j” and the “t” — and add his own “t” or “j” to complete his monogram.
“I was just overwhelmed,” says Camden, who found the monogram in the book — and in two more originally donated to the city library in 1922 by a retired Virginia Tech professor.
Camden's discovery, made late last year, marks the re-emergence of three books that are part of 2,000 left from Jefferson's personal collection. When Jefferson sold the majority of his collection to the Library of Congress there were more than 6,000 volumes, which over the years dwindled to their current count. The Library of Virginia now houses eight.
“It really is so powerful to be able to hold a book that belonged to someone like Jefferson,” Camden says. “If you know about someone like Jefferson, you know he was intimately aware of them all. He knew these books. He read them. You know he handled them.”
Amazingly, for the past 86 years — prior to their official transfer last month from the Richmond library to Camden's custody at the Library of Virginia — the books also could have been handled by just about anybody who happened to find a reference to them in the card catalog.
It's unlikely that anyone would have wanted to — in addition to the first book Camden found, which dealt with growing grapes, the other two were a Masonic text and one on monetary policy.
Now that they've been unearthed, Camden says their accessibility to the public will change only slightly. After a period of restoration, “we will put them on display,” he says. He plans to incorporate them as soon as possible into his own hands-on presentations for students.
The opportunity to touch history once handled by the likes of Jefferson, Camden says, is priceless in inspiring students: “It's what I call ‘feeling the power.’”
Correction: Thomas Jefferson was the third president of the United States, not the second as reported in earlier online and print versions of this story.