By JOHN Y. COLE
It is a little-known fact that Millard Fillmore, the 13th president of the United States (1850-53), and his wife, Abigail, created the first permanent library in the White House. While many of their predecessors brought their personal libraries to the White House, they promptly removed them at the end of their stay.
New information about the first White House library collection and the role of an American president and first lady in its creation were revealed at “Reading in the White House,” a symposium held at the Library of Congress on May 7.
Hosted by the American Bibliographical Society, the National First Ladies Library and the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, the symposium celebrated the recent publication by the Pennsylvania State University Press of “The First White House Library: A History and Annotated Catalogue,” edited by Catherine M. Parisian, assistant professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
The new book includes essays by Parisian and three of the symposium participants: historian Sean Wilentz, Abigail Fillmore biographer Elizabeth Lorelei Thacker-Estrada and White House curator William G. Allman. It also identifies the items in the Fillmores’ original collection—about 200 volumes, along with some periodicals and government documents—purchased with funds in the amount of $2,250 appropriated by Congress.
According to Parisian, who opened the symposium, President Fillmore initially intended to handle purchasing the books for the library in the Executive Mansion himself. Prior to approval of congressional funding for the project, he spent $65.62 on Noah Webster’s Dictionary, a Bible and several atlases, charging them to the account for “furnishing the President’s house.”
Parisian, who holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia, began working on the White House Library project at the Library of Congress in September 2009.
“The most surprising part of the project, after the fact that Millard and Abigail were the library’s founders, is how deliberate they were about selecting books for it,” said Parisian. “For example, Millard reprimanded his purchasing agent for choosing an edition of the ‘Federalist Papers’ without an index. He solicited estimates for individual titles and asked for recommendations from local booksellers; he even borrowed trade catalogs to browse through as he was forming the collection. Millard and Abigail Fillmore clearly valued books as an integral part of their lives.”
The first White House library represented “the collective mind of an age,” said Parisian. She noted that with the exception of 10 lone volumes, it was dispersed by later presidential administrations “and its history and contents all but forgotten.”
To remedy that historical oversight, Parisian’s annotated catalog is being used for a project to reconstruct the Fillmores’ library at the National First Ladies’ Library in Canton, Ohio (www.firstladies.org). Founded by Mary Regula in 2000, the historic archive educates the public about the contributions of first ladies and other notable women in history.
John Bidwell, former president of the Bibliographical Society of America and a member of the project committee, presented a copy of Parisian’s new book to Regula, one of the original proponents of the White House Library reconstruction project.
“When Mary Regula and her associates initiated the White House Library project several years ago in consultation with book collectors, booksellers and others, there were strong indications that information about the Fillmores’ first White House Library and its contents could be found in the collections of the Library of Congress,” said Bidwell. “The Library agreed to provide working space in its Rare Book and Special Collections Division for a project bibliographer, who turned out to be Catherine Parisian. The Institute of Museum and Library Services very kindly funded the project and the publication of the handsome 398-page catalog.”
Parisian’s research, conducted with the assistance of Library of Congress staff members, has made an important contribution to the history of the Library of Congress. For example, one of the most significant events in the Library of Congress’s early history occurred during Fillmore’s administration.
On Dec. 24, 1851, an accidental fire in the Library’s rooms (then housed in the U.S. Capitol) destroyed two-thirds of the Library’s collection of 55,000 volumes, including two-thirds of Thomas Jefferson’s library of 6,487 volumes. [For the past decade, the Library of Congress has been working to reconstruct Jefferson’s library, which was sold to Congress in 1815 to rebuild its original library that was burned by the British in 1814. Currently on display at the Library of Congress, Jefferson’s library remains the core from which the Library’s present collection developed].
Parisian discovered a newspaper article that indicated that President Fillmore and several members of Congress observed the fire and “rendered all the service in their power” to halt the blaze. Several weeks later, on Jan. 13, 1852, Congress approved an appropriations bill to fund the replacement of all the books lost in the fire. Signed into law by President Fillmore, this legislation secured the Library of Congress’ immediate future and was a vote of confidence in governmental support for a library that at the time was under considerable financial strain.
Parisian’s research has helped answer some questions about the first White House Library and the Library of Congress and also paved the way toward additional research. With her help, for example, it will be possible to learn more about the deaccessioning of the White House Library in the late 19th century, and the development and disposition in the 20th century of two Library of Congress special collections: the Executive Mansion Collection and the White House Collection, which may have included volumes from the Fillmores’ library.
Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz concluded the symposium by observing that today’s White House library, “furnished in rare federal and Empire style antiques dating back to the White House’s earliest years, and filled with an entirely different, new collection of books, bears only the most generic resemblance to the parlor of books that Millard and Abigail Fillmore assembled on the second floor in 1850. But it remains the fine legacy of a too-often ridiculed president, whose love of books and family helped define him as much as they did the era in which he lived.”
John Y. Cole, director of the Center for the Book and a historian of the Library of Congress, moderated the symposium. A webcast of the symposium will be available at www.loc.gov/webcasts/.