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  • The First White House Library: A History and Annotated Catalogue
  • Kyle B. Roberts (bio)
The First White House Library: A History and Annotated Catalogue. Catherine M. Parisian, ed. (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, for the Bibliographical Society of America and the National First Ladies’ Library, 2010. Pp. 416. Cloth, $55.00.)

Millard Fillmore is not often celebrated for his presidential accomplishments, but this book chronicles one of them: the establishment of the first library for the White House. As Sean Wilentz argues in the opening essay, Fillmore’s role as progenitor of the library makes sense. Unlike his aristocratic predecessors who brought their own libraries with them or democratic ones who would not deign to spend public money on a private library, Fillmore saw a permanent library as an essential feature of the White House’s public and private worlds. Born in rural poverty, Fillmore experienced intellectual privation first-hand and spent his life acquiring books and building libraries. What began as a request for a reference collection of Congressional publications grew into a full-scale resource for staff and family alike. For President Fillmore and First Lady Abigail, the White House Library stood as a symbol of self-improvement and domestic gentility, two things highly valued by midcentury Americans.

The White House Library, as Catherine Parisian explains in her essay on its history and holdings, provided a source of entertainment for the president’s family and a reference collection for the day-to-day running of the country. Intended to reflect the collective mind of the age, the library’s 195 titles (totaling 1,050 volumes) included works of history, biography, literature, and science common to antebellum American libraries, as well as works of law, commerce, and political economy related to the concerns of the presidency in general and of specific events and issues that confronted Fillmore in particular. Charles Lanman, Librarian of the War Department, procured over two-thirds of these titles in his capacity as Fillmore’s agent. Particularly interesting though are the titles that Fillmore purchased himself, from the Bible, atlas, and Webster’s Dictionary that he bought even before Congress approved funding to the seventeen titles on international and admiralty law that he acquired in the wake of the Cuban Filibuster. The latter came from a longer list recommended by Edward Everett (the original is reprinted as Appendix C) as Fillmore wrestled with the repercussions of an unauthorized attempt [End Page 160] to liberate Cuba from Spain that created significant diplomatic and popular fallout. Recovering the reception of books in historic libraries is difficult, but Parisian’s careful attention to the process of selection provides valuable clues.

Essays by Elizabeth Thacker-Estrada and William Allman give insight, respectively, on the gendered and spatial aspects of the library. Thacker-Estrada argues for the centrality of Abigail Powers Fillmore in the creation of the library with evidence that is more often suggestive than conclusive, but does nicely illustrate the ways in which the First Lady presided over the space as a setting for domestic and official entertainments. Allman uses a broad range of sources to imagine what the library, housed in the oval room in the center of the second floor of the White House, looked like at the time of Fillmore’s presidency. With its mahogany bookcases, “french sofas in hair cloth,” and the family’s own piano and harp (brought down from Buffalo), the library must have resembled middle-class parlors of the day.

Reconstructed from vouchers in the Treasury Department archives and period booksellers’ catalogues, Parisian’s catalogue of the library stands testament to her indefatigable detective work. Original copies of only eleven titles survive today, yet Parisian was able to identify editions for all but 3 of the 195 titles. As valuable as Parisian’s identifications are her descriptions detailing each book’s content, its publishing history, and its significance to mid nineteenth-century trans-Atlantic culture. Most of the works that Fillmore ordered had been printed within the previous decade and (with the possible exception of the books on law and political economy) would have been appropriate for family consumption. The library catalogue provides readers with a snapshot of...


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