The Collection

During the next half century the books from Unter den Linden 17 were slowly absorbed into the Library's collections. Most were identified by a simple, unadorned bookplate naming the nine donors, which remains the sole identification of the books to this day. Notice was given early that books "not yet distributed are held in trust for the advantage of all divisions of the Library without individual preference of one over the other." The temporary library-gymnasium bulged with shelves doing double duty and the accumulation of "unclassified masses." The assistant librarian reminded anyone who would listen that "there is much accessioning of books in special collections urgently needing to be done." The books from Calvary had not produced the library building Harper had hoped for, and it was only with his death in 1906, in his fiftieth year, that plans began to construct a library that would be his memorial.

But the collection did yield other results. The University Library became the largest in the city, and by 1896 it was the second-largest university collection in the United States with 340,000 volumes, the Berlin Collection contributing its uncertain but dominant share. This rapidly achieved status was used by Harper to lure faculty and also to give a sense of stability to the University. It was another reminder that the University was beginning on a monumental scale, and that it had assumed monumental commitments to the future. In the meanwhile, the Berlin books overwhelmed a struggling library staff that had to contend with a research faculty which the books themselves had helped create. It also cooled any urge to make similar en bloc acquisitions for two decades, until the opening of the Harper Memorial Library gave impetus as well as space for the growth of the collections.

A single, officially sanctioned number was never assigned to the Berlin Collection. The numbers varied depending on the occasion and the audience for whom they were intended. "One of the largest book deals ever made" was soon part of library mythology, and it became convenient to round off the numbers at a quarter of a million books and manuscripts, and occasionally more. But the books which arrived in Chicago during the summer of 1892 were the only ones which the University received under the contract signed by Harper and Heinrich Simon, and these were carefully recorded as being 57,630 volumes and 39,020 dissertations. By the time both parties had become completely estranged, the University had paid Calvary 106,000 marks, or approximately $28,382 including shipment and other incidental costs.

The books themselves have outlasted the foibles of the participants, becoming the foundation for the grander aspirations of the Library and the University. The combination of great treasures and row upon row of standard texts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries placed the University Library in the noble company of the great seats of European learning. The rigor with which the University pursued the past made it an immediate part of the working "apparatus" of the institution. Ironically, many of the collections' greatest treasures, the Lafreri Speculum and Buffon's Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, for example, were part of the Library's general collections until recently. Decades later, when Harper's purchase was dimly remembered, these, and multitudes of other books, were being rediscovered.

The broad pattern of the collection's content was reasonably presented in the early outlines. The manuscripts were relatively small in number but they were the foundation of the University's later collection. Many came from the library of the marquis of Taccone and not from Pope Pius VII's library as touted; the autograph letters of Raphael turned out to be spurious. The Library's collection of incunabula also had its beginning with the Berlin Collection, but the real impact came from books printed during the later Renaissance and into the eighteenth century. In one stroke, as it were, the Library had books on many subjects, some of which were not to become academically favored for decades to come. The history of science and technology is an example. In more traditional subjects such as palaeography and classical philology, there was not only an immediate scholarly audience at the founding of the University, but both subjects became deeply rooted in the University and part of the Library's holdings. The topography and physical remains of ancient monuments of Rome was another theme that ran through the collection and that, in turn, stimulated further development by the Library. The richness of the journals and proceedings of the European academies placed the University in immediate touch with the tradition of European erudition and research.

There is a certain profundity to the books in the Berlin Collection. Many are weighty tomes, dense with learning and fact. Such books permit discoveries only by those who are disciplined and well prepared. An eighteenth-century edition of Reineke de Vos is a charming and occasional reminder of the lighter side of the collection. For those not prepared to make such discoveries or whose interests are elsewhere, the books are a reminder of a civilized tradition of learning and intellectual curiosity which is one of our glories and obligations.