Dr. Catherine Parisian reveals ‘The First White House Library’


As the 13th U.S. president, Millard Fillmore did not leave a large footprint on American history, but one of his lasting contributions was the creation of “The First White House Library.”

Dr. Catherine M. Parisian, a UNC Pembroke English professor, has edited a commentary and catalog of the library, titled “The First White House Library: A History and Annotated Catalogue” (416 pages; 15 illustrations; 2010; Penn State University Press).

Dr. Parisian, who was commissioned by the Bibliographical Society of America, lays out the contents of the first library and discusses its origins in several essays.

The 193 titles and 1,050 volumes – once shelved in mahogany cases in the Oval Room on the second floor of the White House  - are a reckoning of the intellectual “state of the union” during the Fillmore presidency. Many of the titles are enduring classics.

“The President of the United States and his cabinet members needed a library in their work,” Dr. Parisian said. “There was not even a Bible in the White House when he arrived.”

A Bible was the first purchase, and legal and other reference books made up the core of the working library.

However, the new library had other functions, in part, because of its location between the offices of cabinet members and the family living quarters.

“The Fillmores were accustomed to having books around them,” Dr. Parisian said. “It was a sign of gentility in 1850’s America, and they were educated people.”

The Oval Room and its library served as a family room for the First Family, and First Lady Abigail Fillmore entertained there. She is believed to have been a driving force behind the petitions to Congress for the library’s funding.

“Abigail Fillmore’s biographer, Elizabeth Thacker-Estrada, wrote an essay for the book,” Dr. Parisian said. “I gave the First Lady her due.

“The story is that she was behind the library because she was a school teacher, an avid reader and truly valued books,” Dr. Parisian said. “But we don’t have any documents that show she pushed for the library.

“All we know is the library was Abigail’s favorite room in the White House, and she spent considerable time there,” she continued. “As a married couple, the Fillmores undoubtedly discussed it during their evening conversations.”

“The First Library” enhances the reputation of Millard Fillmore as an important figure in mid-19th century America.

“He was quite a remarkable individual,” Dr. Parisian said. “He grew up in hardscrabble poverty and was self-educated.”

A successful attorney, Fillmore founded the University of Buffalo and was its chancellor. Late in life, he routinely donated books to many libraries, Dr. Parisian said.

Fillmore may have been a candidate of the Know Nothing Party, but he stood tall as an intellectual force in his day. His choice of books for the library sheds light on the life of the mind of 1850.

Research on the books of the library is where Dr. Parisian’s work really stands out.

As a working library, it had atlases, a dictionary, the Washington City Directory and volumes like Charles Abbott’s “A Treatise of the Law Relative to Merchant Ships and Seamen” and James Fenimore Cooper’s “The History of the Navy of the United Sates of America.”

The library also contained works by leading historians, economists and philosophers: George Bancroft’s “History of the United States,” Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” John Stuart Mill’s “Principles of Political Economy,” Thomas Macauly’s “The History of England,” John Locke’s “Essay on Human Understanding” and Alexis De Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” among others.

There was general reading from authors like Shakespeare and Washington Irving. Arabian Knights, Aesop’s Fables and poetry all found a place in the first White House library.

It took six months to fill the shelves, and it took Dr. Parisian two years to unravel and catalog it. With a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia, Dr. Parisian lists among her scholarly interests book history and bibliographical studies.

“Book history is a relatively new interdisciplinary field,” she said. “It tracks a book’s authorship, printing, publishing, circulation and readership.”

Dr. Parisian’s research took her to the Library of Congress, where she had an office, the National Archives and the White House.

“I found 11-12 books still in their original bindings,” she said. “And there are 10 volumes still in the White House. While I was in the White House, former President Bush walked in on me by accident.”

The result is the story of each book – where it was purchased, its cost and so on.

Dr. Parisian’s book already has a history and has received outstanding reviews. It is in the collections of the Department of State and Smithsonian as well as Stanford, Harvard and UNCP’s Mary Livermore Library.

She currently has a contract from Ashgate publishing for “A Publication History of Frances Burney’s ‘Cecilia.’”

For more information about the “The White House Library:” www.bibsocamer.org/Parisian-White-House-BSA.pdf (PDF - requires Adobe Reader).