The White House Library: A Twice Told Tale
by Reneé Critcher Lyons
Having grown-up in a cabin in upstate New York with only a Bible, hymnal, and almanac as reading material, President Millard Fillmore was the type of person who would give his life for a book – and he almost did. Enjoying the holidays with his family on an early Christmas Eve morn, 1851, he heard the Washington, D.C. fire chiefs call “Fire! Fire! The Library of Congress is on fire.” He rushed to join the eight fire “engines,” wagons loaded with water barrels and hoses, pulled by draft horses. He and several of his cabinet members, as well as other congressmen, pitched in to help. The president also gave orders to the bucket brigade formed by United States Marines from the local navy yard. The line worked until noon Christmas Day without fail, President Fillmore at the head, flames flickering near his thick head of snow-white hair. Although 35,000 books burned in this tragic fire, President Fillmore didn’t give up on his passion. He pushed Congress to appropriate funds to rebuild the Library of Congress, also gaining the funding necessary to establish a personal, Presidential White House Library.
Busy with the internal and external affairs of a growing nation, earlier presidents failed to set aside a room in the White House exclusively for books. Not President Fillmore. Denied access to a circulating library until the age of seventeen, at which time he paid his subscription fees with funds earned working in a mill, Fillmore insisted on increasing both his knowledge and his vocabulary. At the mill, passing from machine to machine, he glanced at a dictionary from time-to-time, memorizing words and their definitions to the hum and drone of the looms.
Because of his love for books and reading, President Fillmore spent $65.62 out of the White House account before the library was even approved by Congress, in order to purchase Noah Webster’s Dictionary. Millard and his wife Abigail selected all the books eventually purchased, the president asking for recommendations from local book sellers, combing catalogs, and obtaining cost estimates, just like a modern-day librarian. His hard work paid off: one thousand and fifty books were added. The books the president and first lady acquired were to “help with running the country,” and used to reveal “the collective mind of the age.” As the president wanted to insure a separation of church and state pursuant to interpretations of the First Amendment, few religious works were purchased, other than the Bible. The fictional works purchased were, before the days of Mark Twain and novels of the common man, mostly written by British authors, except for the books of Washington Irving, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. Yet, the library did contain the collected works of our founders, kite-flying Benjamin Franklin; penman extraordinaire Thomas Jefferson; heads-above-the-rest George Washington; and Old Hickory, Andrew Jackson.
Abigail labeled the library a “parlor of books,” for she wished to make the room not only a place to read, but also a point of welcome, a type of “tea” room in which she entertained domestic and international guests. She selected the second floor Yellow Oval Office for this purpose, and to decorate the room in a style indicative of a 19th century parlor, furnished the library with mahogany bookshelves, French sofas in hair cloth, and the Fillmore’s own piano and harp. President Fillmore usually spent an hour every evening in the room, relaxing with his family.
Three administrations later, President Abraham Lincoln upended Abigail’s tradition, using the room as a refuge, rather than an entertainment venue. Elizabeth Grimsley, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln’s cousin, recalled: “Mr. Lincoln found his way through the crowds which gathered in every hall, to the room where he knew he would bring comfort, and find us with a fragrant cup of tea, and a tempting lunch ready for him. After eating he would stretch himself upon the couch, with a book in his hand, as often the Bible as any other…this was, at that time, the only relaxation he took.”
Just like Fillmore, Lincoln also grew up in wilderness areas, living in log cabins and studying in one-room schoolhouses, yearning for more books. Finally, at age nine, a stepmother brought a few more books into the cabin, and as Lincoln plowed the fields, he would read a chapter at the end of each row.
No wonder the Lincolns fairly embraced the first White House Library, as according to White House historian, William Seale, “Here the bookcases Fillmore had bought were further filled by Mrs. Lincoln, who regularly purchased books from the funds Congress set aside for the purpose. She liked modern English novels; he preferred poetry and plays, and had great admiration for Shakespeare…their leisure was often spent in the upholstered rocking chairs of this room, bespectacled, poring over their books.”’
The Lincolns also used the Library to tutor their children, Willie and Tad, connecting the room to the president’s office by a narrow hallway for the children’s easy access to their father. In the words of his mother, it became Willie’s favorite “resort.” The Lincoln’s babysitter, Julia Taft, remembered Lincoln reading to both his children and their playmates, Bud and Holly Taft:
When the President came into the family sitting room and sat down to read, the boys would rush at him and demand a story. Tad perched precariously on the back of the big chair, Willie on one knee, Bud on the other, both leaning against him. Holly usually found a place on the arm of the chair, and often I would find myself swept into the group by the long arm which seemed to reach almost across the room.
Unfortunately, presidential families following the Lincolns did not value the collection as highly. They borrowed, loaned, or by other means dispersed the Fillmore’s exquisite library until only ten lonely volumes remained. Scholars have recently researched the Library of Congress’ archives to determine the exact contents of the Fillmore’s library. One historian believed the original Fillmore collection represents “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.”
The present-day White House Library was constructed as President Franklin Roosevelt’s personal library in 1935, but was not permanently stocked until 1963. Before 1935, the ground floor room currently in use was a laundry room, cluttered by “tubs, buckets, and a variety of lumber.” It continued to serve as a laundry room until 1902, when President Theodore Roosevelt renovated the ground floor and “Room 17” became a locker room. FDR eventually “labeled” the room a library. But, not until 1961 did First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy take an interest in creating what became the second, and present-day, White House Library.
Like Fillmore and Lincoln, Jackie Kennedy knew the value of books. They helped her converse with the brightest minds of the day: poets, artists, and statesmen. For, while she did not grow up in a cabin like Fillmore and Lincoln, her family did worry about finances. Appreciating her access to libraries and education, young Jackie knew books would allow her to learn, work, and expand her horizons within political circles. Obtaining a degree in French literature from George Washington University, she easily fit in with the intellectuals in Washington, D.C., having acquired the knowledge and wherewithal to serve as a political journalist.
When her husband was elected president, First Lady Jackie Kennedy asked James T. Babb, then director of the Yale University library, to form a committee to select new books for a second White House Library. In 1963, 1,780 were placed on the shelves. Some of the mainstay titles included: The Journal of George Washington, The Religion of Abraham Lincoln, and The Life of Washington Irving. A book about the history, and 100th anniversary celebration, of the Boston Public Library also filled the shelves. The books selected by Kennedy and Babb’s committee remain, to this day, in the White House Library, seemingly only supplemented from time-to-time with presidential papers.
The real importance of the White House Library for today’s American citizen, then, is it serves as a sort of library museum which honors our country’s origins, containing five portraits of famous Native Americans, a wood chandelier once owned by famed adventure author James Fenimore Cooper, and a saber reminiscent of the Revolutionary War era.
Today’s librarians would chastise White House staff and residents for not weeding and updating the White House Library collection. Kids in Milton Terrace South Elementary School in New York State tried to spread the message right before President Obama moved in, suggesting Click-Clack-Moo as an appropriate title, in an effort to render the library “kid-friendly.” It seems the books from 1963 still remain on the shelves despite their good efforts. Perhaps we might say the White House Library needs some updating. Presidents Fillmore, Lincoln, and First Lady Jackie Kennedy would surely say so!
- Journey through time while reading “Visiting the Great Father,” in Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out, as author Joseph Bruchac speaks to American Indian visitors to the White House “from the time of Jefferson on.” Watch time itself seem to disappear in Max Grafe’s accompanying sepia-tone illustration.
- Laugh more at the antics of Willie and Tad Lincoln in Russell Freedman’s “High Spirits in the White House,” found in Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out.
- Discover Jacqueline Kennedy’s love of books, her favorite children’s books, as well as her admonition “Read for escape, read for adventure, read for romance,” in Anita Silvey’s “A White Mouse in the White House,” found in the pages of Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out.
- Find out about the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival in John Cole’s “Mrs. Bush Inspires a National Book Festival,” within the pages of Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out. Enjoy the festive mood of Carol Dyer’s accompanying poster.
- Read about another famous room in “The Oval Office: The World’s Most Famous Office.”
- Explore the steps needed to visit the White House in “Field Trip Guide: Visiting the White House.”
- Finally, learn more about navigating your school library in “The Library: A Place of Discovery.”
Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
- Several years back, Rolling Stones rock ‘n’ roller Keith Richards told a reporter during an interview that libraries are “the great equalizer.” What did he mean by this statement? How did this statement apply in Millard Fillmore and Abraham Lincoln’s case? Richards also said he would have been a librarian if fate had not given him the chance to become a member of a rock group. What is the relationship between rock ‘n’ roll lyrics and the words found in library books?
- How is your favorite library, similar to the White House Library in Willie Lincoln’s case, a “resort?” Why is it of importance to you and your family? Why do you believe President Lincoln chose the library as a refuge from the troubles of the Civil War?
- If you could add a book to the White House Library, what would you choose, and why? How will the book benefit both yourself and others?
- Has your library changed over the past few years? In what way? Did the changes benefit you and others in your community? How has the library helped you and/or your friends and siblings become better readers and learners? What are the amazing learning experiences you have experienced as a result of the libraries found in your school and community? In what way does your school library help as you ace your classes?
- How do you respond to scrutiny and ridicule, much the same as President Fillmore? What strengths do you call upon to battle misguided jokes or bullying? Have any books checked out of the library helped you develop the inner strength we all call upon during hard times?
Activities for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
- Keep up the good work of the Milton Terrace South Elementary School by becoming a library activist! Write President Obama as an individual or a class and argue that Click-Clack-Moo and other children’s books need to be included in the White House Library. Also, suggest the collection needs an overhaul, brand-spanking-new books! Learn more on the NCBLA’s “Advocate’s Basics” page on thencbla.org!
- We hear quite a deal in the news about the presidential libraries, George W. Bush’s special library having opened in 2013. However, many do not realize a special library is also dedicated to the first ladies and is located in Canton, Ohio. The website for the National First Ladies’ Library is found at FirstLadies.org. Surf through the list of our nation’s first ladies and decide which one you would like to learn more about. Just as Abigail, Mary Todd, and Jacqueline contributed to the White House Library, find something special your choice of first ladies contributed to our country by researching the site. Then, visit the National First Ladies’ Library blog. Browse through the categories and find one pertaining to the interest held by “your” first lady. Read the selection and ponder whether you could add anything to the blog entry, hopefully some precious bit of information that was not included in the blog posting. If so, comment on the blog entry appropriately, and spread the word!
- Another important contributor to the strength of America’s libraries was Andrew Carnegie. Learn more about this great benefactor here. Discover the number of libraries Carnegie supported here. Find the closest, still-open Carnegie library near your community. Call or e-mail the librarian ahead of time and arrange a visit. While visiting, speak to the librarian about how the library contributes to the welfare of the community and how you might play a part in preserving the library’s significant history.
- For fun, try the U.S. Presidential nicknames flash card quizlet. Use an online dictionary to define the term “moniker.” Next, find the moniker for your state. Research why your state is so nicknamed and create a Voice Thread in which you tell the story, using selected images, (or, better yet, take your own photographs) of how your state was named.
- In a journal, reflect upon your understanding of the concept “separation of church and state,” heeded by President Fillmore as he selected books for the White House Library. Next, listen to a lecture on the historical interpretation of the concept and this Notre Dame University professor’s viewpoint. Write a post-audio/video reflection regarding any new understandings, questions, arguments, or viewpoints which came to mind as you listened to and viewed the material. Also, answer the question: What is your personal interpretation of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists?
- Take a virtual tour of the White House Google Art Project, specifically visiting the White House Library. Also, view the slideshow of the art placed within the White House Library, as described in this article. Choose to do one of the following:
- Understand the significance of the Native Americans portrayed in these works of art, and why they visited the White House in 1821-1822.
- Delve into the architectural style of the White House.
- Look into the significance of the author James Fenimore Cooper and the manner in which his books portray America’s early historical settings.
- Discover the contributions of the Marquis de Lafayette to the American Revolution.
- Find other famous sabers or swords which were used or forged in the our Country’s Revolutionary era.
Next, draw, paint, sketch, or use photos or cut-outs to create a poster montage which will artistically relay the newly found information to a fellow student, peer, family member, or friend. You may even create a digital work of art or montage, if you prefer.
- The five Native American portraits in the White House Library are:
- Hayne Hudjihini, Eagle of Delight, from the Oto tribe
- Monchousia, White Plume, of the Kansa tribe
- Petlesharro, Generous Chief, of the Pawnee tribe
- Sharitarish, Wicked Chief, of the Pawnee tribe
- Shaumonekusse, Prairie Wolf, of the Otoe tribe
Choose one of these historical figures and research his contribution to early American history. Thereafter, write a monologue from the figure’s viewpoint in which he speaks as to his role in American history and the portrait found in the White House Library.
Beschloss, Michael. “Five Myths About Jackie Kennedy,” Washington Post, 24 October 2013. Web. July, 2015.
“Click, Clack, Moo in the White House Library?” School Library Journal, 54.12 (2008). 15. Print.
Cole, John. “Fillmore’s Foundation: First White House Library Discovered, Reconstructed.” Information Bulletin. Library of Congress. July/August 2010. Web. 3 April 2014.
Johnston, William Dawson. History of the Library of Congress: Volume I: 1800-1864. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1904.
Kellogg, Carolyn. “White House Library’s ‘Socialist’ Books Were Jackie Kennedy’s.” LATimesblogs.com. Los Angeles Times, 19 February 2010. Web. 3 April 2014.
“Library.” The White House Museum. WHM Online. n.d. Web. 3 April 2014.
Rayback, Robert J. Millard Fillmore: Biography of A President. Buffalo: Henry Stewart, Inc., 1959.
Roberts, Kyle. “The First White House Library: A History and Annotated Catalogue (review).” Journal of the Early Republic, 31.1 (2011). 160-2. Print.
Sheridan, Peter. “New Biography Delves Deep Into Jackie Kennedy’s Family Secrets.” Express, 13 May 2014. Web. 14 July 2015.
“Upstairs at the White House: Family Library.” Mr. Lincoln’s White House. The Lincoln Institute. 2002-14. Web. 3 April 2014.
©2016 Reneé Critcher Lyons; National Children’s Book Literacy Alliance