The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
A Surprise from Th Jefferson
Perhaps the most enjoyable part of my job as a Reference Archivist at the Smithsonian Institution Archives is addressing the variety of the more than 5,000 inquiries we receive annually. I may be researching a modern art exhibition at the beginning of the day, a donation of ethnological specimens by midday, and records pertaining to the construction of the Arts and Industries Building (the second Smithsonian building and the first constructed to house the United States National Museum (more images of the Arts and Industries Building are available at the Smithsonian Newsdesk and at the Smithsonian Institution Archives) just before putting out the light and heading home for the evening.
Each inquiry is a new puzzle to solve, a mystery not only important to the patron, but also to the archivist acting on the patron’s behalf. During the course of research, I might stumble upon material which is unrelated to the task at hand, but nevertheless, equally intriguing on a personal or historical level. One such example occurred over two years ago (and more than 1,000 inquiries), and it was perhaps the most significant find in my eleven years as a Reference Archivist.
I was sifting through the records of the Columbian Institute (see the Record Unit 7051 finding aid) addressing an inquiry put forth by a patron in Brazil interested in correspondence related to Jose Silvestre Rebello, who, in 1824, became the first diplomatic representative of the independent government of Brazil in the United States (a biographical article on Jose Silvestre Rebello from The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 20, No. 3, Aug., 1940, is available here). The Columbian Institute was a literary and scientific society in Washington, D.C. (1816-1838). Its most notable accomplishment was obtaining land from Congress on the National Mall for the establishment of a national garden, which later became the United States Botanic Garden. Additional information on the Columbian Institute is available on Wikipedia and at Museum Stuff.
My review of the carefully handwritten letters in the correspondence files was minimal, for my primary focus was on letters addressed to or signed by Jose Silvestre Rebello. I could not help but notice, however, signatures from the likes of John Quincy Adams, Thomas Law, and Edward Cutbrush. Furthermore, I frequently paused to admire the penmanship, the beautifully flowing sentences extending for several lines (no LOL’s or BTW’s to be found), and the original wax seals which adorn many of the letters. One particular letter, if only by chance, drew my attention to the heading in the upper right corner. It read, “Monticello Feb. 24, 17.” I paused, and then focused the signature, which is unmistakably, “Th Jefferson.” I was frozen as my brain processed what lay before me; a nearly two hundred year old letter which once graced the desk of Thomas Jefferson, quietly resting on my humble desk! I still get chills just thinking about it! The letter is Jefferson’s gracious reply to an appointment as an honorary member of the Columbian Institute.
Dear Sir, Monticello Feb. 24, 17
The Enrollment of my name among those of the members
of the Columbian Institute is an honor which I receive with the
acknolegments it so justly calls for. I place it to the account of their
kindness, and not of any services I can now render them. Age and its
effects forbid me that expectation, and teach me that it is not among
the ruins of memory that new materials for science are to be sought.
The institution of your society adds another to the views of the futurity
which fill with delight our contemplations on the future destinies of our be
loved country, and of the advancement it is to produce in the cha
-racter and condition of man. With prayers for its prosperity,
I tender to the Institute and yourself the assurance of my high
respect and consideration.
Thomas Law esquire
Face of Letter
Thomas Law esquire
Monticello Feb. 24, 1817
Th Jefferson to Thos Law
Relative to his election as
An honorary member of
The Columbian Institute
I have been fortunate to work with many primary documents; some older, some more elegant, some more significant in content. However, as a great admirer of Thomas Jefferson, and with keen interest in the American Revolution and early American History, this letter remains my greatest “find” as an Archivist. There is no mention of it in our finding aid for Record Unit 7051: Columbian Institute, Records, 1816-1841, with related papers, 1791-1800, and several of my colleagues were unaware of its existence among our collections, or, as Jefferson might say, it was ”not among the ruins of memory.”
Generally speaking, there is little time to savor or reflect upon the inquiries I address, due to the volume of questions received by the Smithsonian Institution Archives and our three person reference staff. I try to keep a list of topics I hope to explore further in the future, and have notes for potential articles or papers I someday aspire to publish. In the meantime, however, I am just thankful to be part of the Smithsonian Institution, and each day when I open a new e-mail or letter, field a phone call, or greet a patron who has made the trip to our reading room, a new adventure begins, and I set forth to work diligently towards the Smithsonian’s mission: the increase and diffusion of knowledge.