Rare Books Made Accessible by Berg and Rosenwald

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1940

In the 1940s, donors established two major collections of rare books at America’s most significant libraries. In 1940, Albert Berg, a New York surgeon from a Hungarian immigrant family, donated a very special 3,500-volume collection to the New York Public Library. A lifelong bachelor, Berg had assembled the books in concert with his older brother Henry—also a bachelor physician in New York City.

The brothers Berg filled the East 73rd Street rowhouse they shared with their unmatched collection, which included heavy representation from Dickens (Albert’s favorite author since his boyhood job as a page at the Cooper Union library), Thackeray (Henry’s favorite writer), Walter Scott, Goldsmith, Lord Byron, Robert Louis Stevenson, Kipling, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Among their rarest objects were a first edition of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Shakespeare’s second folio, a first edition of Milton’s Poems, and a “perfect copy” of a 1786 edition of Burns’s Poems. Berg also acquired for the New York Public Library collections put together by publisher W. T. H. Howe and RCA founder Owen Young. These added more than 30,000 items to the Berg collection, including a copy of “The Raven” inscribed by Poe to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and John Keats’s final letter to Fanny Brawne.

Another great book lover who was determined to make his collection available to others was Lessing Rosenwald, who served from 1932 to 1939 as chairman of the Sears, Roebuck company that his father Julius Rosenwald had built up. After retiring, Lessing devoted himself to collecting rare printed objects, gathering together an exceptional trove of items in the ensuing decades. His assemblage of works by William Blake is the finest outside of Britain. Prized books from England’s great printer William Caxton, illuminated manuscripts from the medieval and Renaissance periods, and a superb assortment of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century woodcut books are among his treasures.

Rosenwald opened his home, published facsimile versions, and took other measures to make sure that experts and the public could have access to the items he purchased. In 1943, he began a series of gifts of books to the Library of Congress. These culminated shortly after his death in 1979, when his remaining volumes were donated to the library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The approximately 3,000 books donated by Lessing Rosenwald continue to rank among the most valued and heavily used rare books in the Library of Congress collection. One highly visible gift is the Giant Bible of Mainz, which Rosenwald presented to the nation in 1952, one year after acquiring it from a private European collection. It is one of the last hand-written and illuminated Bibles, created at almost exactly the same time, and perhaps in the same city, as the first Gutenberg Bible produced with moving type. Rosenwald’s Giant Bible is permanently displayed directly across from one of the first Gutenberg Bibles in the main building of the Library of Congress.