Northwestern Completes Digitization of 16th Century Library

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It was a “coup de bibliothèque” for this fledgling college of fewer than 300 students on the wooded shores of Lake Michigan. In 1870, “North Western University” as it was often still called, purchased one of the great private book collections of Germany, the library of Johannes Schulze (1786–1869), a recently deceased senior official in the Prussian ministry of religion and culture, friend and companion to Goethe, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Leopold von Ranke. Schulze was a fanatical collector of rare books, especially relating to Greek and Roman antiquity. Upon its arrival in Evanston, shipped out just before the outbreak of war between Prussia and France, Schulze’s collection was renamed the “Greenleaf Library,” honoring Luther T. Greenleaf (1821–1886), the Northwestern trustee who made the acquisition possible through a generous gift of real estate to the university. The whole story of this acquisition makes for exciting reading: it is online here.

Using its Kirtas scanner, Northwestern University Library has now digitized 288 of the 314 16th century imprints in what we now call the “Schulze-Greenleaf Library,” allowing scholars of the early years of European printing—as well as the curious general public—to examine each book page by page, in full color, and in very high resolution. Every page has been reproduced, as well as bindings, endpapers, and all blank pages. A reading-glass-like tool allows readers to look at individual features of every book in great detail.

The works in this new digital library include first printings of works by Erasmus and Dürer, among them Dürer’s famous treatise on human proportions, Vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion of 1528, the earliest work to apply the study of human anatomy to aesthetics. It was not published until six months after Dürer’s death, and it bears a verse epitaph composed by Dürer’s close friend, Nuremberg humanist Willibald Pirckheimer, which can be read here in the original. Another famous book in the new digitized collection is Lucretius’s De rerum natura (“On the Nature of Things”) of 1512, one of the most influential poetic and philosophical works of the Renaissance. The rediscovery, publication, and impact of this work of the 1st century BC is the subject of Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt’s recent bestselling book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011).

Reading through the list of works in this collection, one will look in vain for a single book in English. This was not only because Schulze was a German classicist—an expert on Greek prosody and a student as well as admirer of Alexander the Great. It was also because Western scholarship in the 16th century—in fact throughout the 17th century and well into the 18th—was conducted almost exclusively in the Classical languages, Greek, Latin, and to a lesser extent, Hebrew. Dürer’s work is in fact one of the very few books in this collection in German or in any other vernacular European language.

The Schulze-Greenleaf digitization project was undertaken jointly by Northwestern University Library’s Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections and the Department of Digital Collections, with Scott Krafft as the curatorial lead and Dan Zellner as project manager. Northwestern Professor Daniel Garrison served as project consultant. This new resource is now accessible through Northwestern’s Digitized Collections Portal. Records and links to each item in the collection are contained in NUcat and WorldCat, making the books of this new digital library discoverable by those who know nothing of the Prussian scholar Johannes Schulze, the Evanston philanthropist Luther Greenleaf, or of the library that now bears both their names.

For further information, contact Northwestern University Special Libraries, 1-847-467-5675.

J. Garrett, January 8, 2013