"An Admirable Nucleus"

The Prussian Purchase at the Heart of Today's Northwestern University Library

In 1869, Northwestern Latin professor and University librarian Daniel Bonbright was visiting Europe when he heard about an extraordinary private book collection that had just become available for sale. Assembled by Johannes Schulze, who had studied with Hegel and befriended Goethe and Schopenhauer, this personal library included books printed by the famous 16th and 17th century printing dynasties, the Manutius and Elsevirs, as well as 13 incunabula—books printed before 1501.

After an enthusiastic report from the librarian at the Royal University in Berlin concluded that this collection would “serve as an admirable nucleus around which a great library might gradually grow,” Bonbright quickly and shrewdly negotiated a deal to pack up the 20,000-volume collection and ship it to Evanston. Says Assistant University Librarian for Collection Management Jeff Garrett, “This was a ‘coup de bibliotheque’ that was recalled painfully by intellectual Germany for decades thereafter. As late as 1925, Berlin library historian Karl M. Meyer would express ‘regret that this library could not have been kept for the Empire.’”

Garrett is co-curator, with McCormick Library of Special Collections curator Russell Maylone

Now known as the Greenleaf Library, after the Northwestern trustee who donated the funds for its purchase, Schulze’s collection contains 13 books from the 15th century, more than 500 volumes from the 16th, and thousands from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Among its unique and priceless volumes are the first printed texts by classical Greek historian Herodotus (published by Aldus Manutius in Venice in 1502); the first appearance of the nine plays of Aristophanes in the original Greek (published by Aldus Manutius in Venice in 1498); and the first publication of the complete known works of Archimedes, again in the original Greek (published in Basel in 1544).

“This collection includes the first appearances in print of most of the major classical authors and most of the minor ones,” adds co-curator Maylone. “There are museum catalogs from throughout Europe by the dozen, descriptions of many of the earliest wunderkammer collections in Europe, early literature, history, travels through Europe and especially Italy, and almost the entire range of Renaissance publications of newly excavated ancient treasures.

“Schulze was an omnivorous bibliophile collector who, with enormous knowledge, persistence and drive created this great library,” Maylone says. “And Northwestern was incredibly fortunate to have acquired it.”

That section of the exhibit displayed in the Main Library will be on view until June 28th. The section displayed in the McCormick Library of Special Collections exhibit cases on the 3rd floor of the Deering Library will have a more extended run, being on view until November 21th.