George Washington's collection of books took over forty years of concerted, calculated efforts to assemble.
In the absence of a public library system or the internet, a personal library provided ready access to practical information and entertainment. It was also a status symbol, attesting to the learning, virtue, and wealth of its owner. Washington’s efforts to build a personal library reflected the importance of books in colonial America. The printed materials it contained connected readers to the cultural centers of Europe and brought up-to-date news of politics, science, fashion, and manners. By becoming familiar with the writings of ancient and modern authors, Washington expanded his knowledge beyond the limits of his own experience.
As a surveyor and soldier, Washington’s earliest book purchases were limited by his finances and immediate needs. After making his permanent home at Mount Vernon, he began to build the knowledge base he desired. His marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759 temporarily enlarged his collection, in the form of hundreds of books from the library of Martha’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, an exceptionally wealthy planter. Washington kept these books for the education of his stepson, John (Jacky) Parke Custis, and until Jacky’s coming of age, the whole family benefited from their use.
Washington added regularly to his collection, amassing more than 1,200 titles in more than 900 volumes by the time of his death. While it was not as large as his contemporary bibliophiles, John Adams (more than 3,500 volumes) and Thomas Jefferson (more than 6,700 volumes), it far out-numbered the modest handful of books found in most households in Virginia at the time. In seeking to hire a secretary in 1797, Washington offered access to his library as a perk, acknowledging: “I have a great many instructive Books, on many subjects, as well as amusing ones.”