Guide to the Research Collections

- Section -- I -- GENERAL MATERIALS
- PART TWO
- 15 -- RARE BOOK DIVISION
- HISTORICAL SURVEY

HISTORICAL SURVEY

The nucleus of the Rare Book Division is the library of James Lenox. The other predecessor collections, the Astor Library and the Tilden collection, made important but secondary contributions. Scarce and valuable works have been collected through the years as they could be secured; many have come as gifts, the most notable large groups being the Duyckinck, Myers, and Ford collections.

Features of James Lenox's collection were the famous Bibles, early editions of English literature, first printed accounts of early voyages, and most especially rare Americana. In the twelfth annual report of the trustees (1881), the Lenox Library was said to contain "some of the most rare and precious monuments and memorials of typographic art and the historic past as have escaped the wreck and been preserved to this day"--a characterization that needs no modification. In 1890 the Lenox Library received from Margaret Wolfe Duyckinck (widow of Evert A. Duyckinck) a legacy of the valuable printed books, manuscripts,

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and engravings which her husband had gathered.1 The Stuart collection, described in detail in the section on Rare Book Division resources, came to the Lenox Library in 1892; it is particularly rich in materials on natural history, general history, theology and ecclesiastical history, and the fine arts. In 1897 Alexander Maitland gave more than 220 volumes of rare Americana, approximately half of which were published before 1550; these included some of the rarest treasures of the noted collector Martin Kalbfleisch, purchased from his son through J. O. Wright.2 Maitland also established a purchase fund for Americana and cartography.

The Tilden collection, which together with funds of the Tilden Trust formed a part of the original foundation, contained individual rarities. Although Samuel Jones Tilden's library was not given entirely to the New York Public Library, among works received were three issues of the first edition of Milton's Paradise Lost (1667-68), and the first three folio editions of Shakespeare (1623, 1632, and 1664).3

The Astor Library, though it acquired rare works, was not a collector's but a reference library, with resources not usually found elsewhere in the city. Dr. Cogswell, the superintendent responsible for the development of the Astor Library, was guided in his purchases by the concept of securing the finest edition of any works collected: during the last half of the nineteenth century, this usually indicated a first edition. Therefore, while he did secure a first folio Shakespeare and an editio princeps of Homer, as he reported in 1849, most books were chosen primarily for their value to scholarship, rather than as treasures. This point of view continued to guide the policy of the Astor Library. J. J. Astor, for example, gave the Hepworth Dixon collection of about 500 English Civil War pamphlets (1640-50) which, together with other notable accessions of the preceding year, prompted Robbins Little, then superintendent, to describe the Astor Library in his annual report of 1880 as one "to encourage high studies and assist in the reform of popular instruction.4 Treasures were not, however, entirely neglected. In 1884, Mr. Astor gave early printed books mainly of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, some of which were primarily interesting as rarities.

In 1922, Dr. Frank P. O'Brien gave the library his Beadle Dime Novel collection numbering about 1,400 pieces, and in 1963 C. V. Clare gave approximately 900 examples of Diamond Dick Weekly and other successors to Beadle.5 More than 100 rare books and manuscripts came as a gift of Mrs. Felix M. Warburg in 1941.6 The Whitney collection of cookbooks also came to the library in 1941, under the terms of the will of Mrs. Helen Hay Whitney. This important gift included seventeen manuscripts and more than 200 printed books, largely English, ranging in date from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries.7 In 1947, Gabriel Wells, the New York rare book dealer, gave the library, through the terms of his will, the privilege of selecting rare books and manuscripts to the value of $10,000.8

The bequests of Edward S. Harkness in 1950, and of his widow, Mary Stillman Harkness, in 1951, brought many rare volumes to the division, including a fine copy of the first edition of T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom and a set of the four folio editions of Shakespeare.9 Mrs. Francis Minot Weld presented in 1950, in memory of her husband, rarities in general literature, reference books and first editions, together with a purchase fund.10

The Oscar Lion Whitman collection, of great importance for the study of Walt Whitman, was placed on deposit by Lion in 1953; by 1960 the full collection had been transferred to the library.11 The purchase in 1958 of the Sir William Stirling-Maxwell collection of 59 contemporary books and pamphlets celebrating the battle of Lepanto formed the core of a growing group of materials relating to this key victory of Don Juan of Austria.

In addition to these and other notable rare book gifts, several special funds have been established for the purchase of materials for the division. The De Vinne Memorial Fund was the bequest of Alfred E. Ommen in 1950 for the purchase of books related to the art of printing and finely printed books of all ages. The Eames Fund, created by the will of Dr. Wilberforce Eames, provides funds for the purchase of Americana published before 1801. The Ford Fund (No. 1) was established by Emily Ellsworth Ford Skeel in memory of her parents Gordon Lester Ford and Emily Ellsworth Fowler Ford for the purchase of books, manuscripts, and papers to be added to the Ford collection. Under the will of Mrs. Lathrop C. Harper, four funds were established: Harper Fund No. 1 is used for the purchase of incunabula, and Harper Fund No. 2 for the purchase of books over 100 years old, other than incunabula, primarily Americana; Harper

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Funds Nos. 3 and 4, for the purchase of books on jewelry and precious stones and on the graphic arts, are administered by the Art and Architecture Division. A bequest under the will of Alexander Maitland in 1911 makes funds available for the purchase of early Americana and cartography.