Guide to the Research Collections

- Section -- II: -- THE HUMANITIES



In 1854, Joseph Cogswell wrote that German literature was a relatively "recent growth" of the Astor Library, and that "of the fourteen hundred volumes in this language of the class of belles-lettres,

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certainly one thousand must be the productions of the present century, and not above one hundred anterior to the middle of the last."1 An idea of the subsequent growth in this field may be obtained from the following tabulation:

1854 Astor Library1,400 volumes
1921 New York Public Library14,016

Outstanding gifts and acquisitions which have enlarged the holdings include volumes from the Bancroft collection purchased by the library in 1894. First editions of Goethe, Schiller, and Lessing came from Alexander Maitland in 1896, and from Francis M. Weld in 1948. A number of German gift books and almanacs were given by Mrs. Henry Draper as part of a larger gift of the genre in other languages.

Collected editions of the major authors are an important feature of the working collection. Separate works are also present, but if a title is available in an author's collected edition, new editions are not acquired unless they contain important additional scholarly material. Literary criticism and biography are strongly represented. There are numerous analytic entries in the Public Catalog for articles in learned journals and periodicals not covered in the standard commercial indexes.

The continuity of the collections during both world wars was ensured by agreements concluded prior to each war, whereby German serial and monograph publications were sent to the library through a neutral country or held in storage until the war was over. After World War II, through a cooperative acquisitions project with the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library received at one time a vast number of wartime German publications in all disciplines.2

After 1959 the library began to receive current publications in belles-letters on general order from the Federal Republic of Germany; these are supplemented by selections from bibliographic tools, with the result that the representation of modern authors is very extensive. Acquisition of materials from the German Democratic Republic is somewhat less satisfying because of difficulties in obtaining material, but the intention is to be comprehensive in belles-lettres. There is little autograph and manuscript material and, with the exception of occasional gifts, few first or other rare editions.

Although the general collecting policies of the library apply to German literature, certain special cases exist. For example, all translations into German of Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton, and Bunyan are purchased as they appear. As in all literatures, German drama is collected exhaustively. The prompt-book and typescript holdings of the Theatre Collection are rich in translations and adaptations for American productions of plays by Grillparzer, Goethe, Kotzebue, Lessing, Schiller, and Brecht. Poetry holdings are also significant.

There are complete or substantially complete sets of the most important general periodicals, serials, and learned society publications in the field. Among others are Deutsche Vierteljahrsshrift für Literaturwissenschaft, Jahrbuch der Goethe-Gesellschaft, and Deutsche National-Litteratur. The library presently receives many literary journals from both German republics. From the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the holdings of "Musenalmanache" and "Taschenbücher" are interesting but lack many of the rarities mentioned in Pissin's Alamanache der Romantik. There is a file of the Frauentaschenbuch, edited by de La Motte Fouqué, and a number of volumes of F.A. Brockhaus' Urania.


Literature in Old High German, with its ballads and folk songs, is well represented. Of note is the Spencer Collection's copy of Conrad Celtis' magnificently illustrated edition of the works of Hrosvitha of Gandersheim, Opera Hrosvite Illustris Virginis (1501). Celtis, according to his own account, discovered the manuscripts of the long-forgotten poems and dramas of Hrosvitha in a monastery. Although she wrote in Latin, she is considered to be the first German dramatist and poetess. The Nibelungenlied and other popular and courtly epics of Middle High German are available in many editions.

A group of fine illustrated books in the Spencer Collection from the Renaissance add lustre to the holdings for this period; the oldest example is Das neue Narrenschiff (1495), an unauthorized edition of Das Narrenschiff of Sebastian Brant, published the year before. The collection also holds a French translation entitled La Nef dez Folz du Monde (1497) with 115 colored wood-cuts in the text, and Alexander Barclay's English translation The Ship of Fools (1509). The satiric illustrations of the work, sometimes attributed to Albrecht Dürer, were widely copied and contributed to its great popularity. Other Renaissance revivals of Medieval poetry are the Heldenbuch (1509) and Die Mörin of Hermann von Sachsenheim (the Spencer Collection copy is dated 1538).

Martin Luther's translation of the Bible gave Germany a new literary language. In the Lenox collection of the Rare Book Division are located the New Testament (1522), often called the "September Bibel," and the first edition of both Testaments issued in 1534. Both Bibles are illustrated with woodcuts; those of the 1534 Bible are colored by hand and illuminated. Another treasure of the Rare Book Division is Luther's beautiful Geystliche Lieder (1545).

Schiller is represented by a number of first editions in both the Rare Book Division and the Berg Collection. Indicative of nineteenth-century English interest in German literature is a first edition of Thomas Carlyle's Life of Friedrich Schiller (1825) and his Translations from the German (1858) in the Berg Collection.


Forming a nucleus of the German literature collections for the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are some 4,000 card catalog entries for the extensive Goethe holdings. The preponderance of the material is literary criticism. Three early collected editions of Goethe's work are available: Schriften (1787-90), and the Cotta editions of 1815-19 and 1827-42. Later standard editions include the Weimar edition in 142 volumes (1887-1919), the Cotta Jubiläums-Ausgabe (1902-07), and the recent Cotta edition (1949-63).

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The group of Goethe first editions includes the very rare Götz von Berlichingen (1773). Faust is the best represented among Goethe's individual works. 180 entries in the catalog include a large number of translations. Both the Berg Collection and the Rare Book Division possess copies of the first edition of the first portion of the drama called Faust. Ein Fragment (1790);3 the Rare Book Division also has the first edition of the whole of Part I (1808). The Berg Collection holds a first edition of both parts in original boards dated 1834. Many theatrical versions, several in typescript and unpublished, operatic versions, and theatrical versions in numerous languages are present. English translations are plentiful.

Frisian Holdings

In 1937 the library acquired a collection of about 1,000 books in the Frisian language and on Frisian literature, thus making its collection outstanding. There are almost 200 volumes of poetry and fiction, about 50 children's books, and nearly 300 plays. The sets of important periodicals are generally complete; many are now very nearly unobtainable, the volumes before 1875 having been printed in limited numbers. Some of the interesting titles include Johannes Vliet's Braedasche Almanac (1664), one of the earliest examples of Frisian printing; Wiarda's Asega-Buch (1805), and M. de Haan Hettema's Proeve van een Friesch en Nederlandsch Woordenboek (1832), called the first attempt at a Frisian-Dutch dictionary. Periodicals of importance and rarity include For Hûs en Heem (1888-95), Frisia (1917-36), and Fryslân (1916-41). This important collection continues to grow.

German Americana

German Americana received great collecting emphasis in the early years of this century and is still well represented in the library's holdings.4 Works on many subjects are included, among them religion, Bibles, description and travel. Among the scarce items in the collection is a file of Deutsch-amerikanische Dichtung (1889-90), published in New York City; of lesser rarity is the standard German American Annals. Poetry is a strong feature of these holdings.

In addition, the library has a small but significant group of publications in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, including many critical works and later studies, with early editions of the works of Henry Harbaugh and Ezra Grumbine.