A Tale of Two Cities: A Brief History of Northwestern's Greenleaf Library

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by Jeffrey Garrett

Engraved portrait of Johannes Schulze by Hans Meyer, from: Johannes Schulze und das höhere preussische Unterrichtswesen in seiner Zeit, by Conrad Varrentrapp (Leipzig: Teubner, 1889)

For all its 500 pages, the standard history of German libraries since the Enlightenment, Georg Leyh’s Die deutschen Bibliotheken von der Aufklärung bis zur Gegenwart mentions only a single library in the United States. It is not Harvard's or Yale's, nor is it the Library of Congress, nor even the venerable Library Company of Philadelphia, founded by Benjamin Franklin himself. It is the "UB in Evanston" (18)—meant is the "Universitäts-Bibliothek" of Northwestern University. 1

The reason for this distinction was the purchase, in 1870, of one of the great private libraries of Germany by the fledgling university on the shores of far-off Lake Michigan, a "coup de bibliothèque" 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." 2

But by then, the 20,000-volume collection of Johannes Schulze (1786-1869) had been in use by Northwestern students and faculty for an entire half a century. Its acquisition increased the size of Northwestern’s library tenfold, brought books to Evanston printed before Columbus came to America, dozens of richly produced volumes created by the famous printing dynasties of 16th and 17th century Europe, Aldus Manutius in Venice and Elsevir in the Netherlands. It is today one of the great treasures of the university.

How did this collection come into being, who was the collector, and how did Northwestern succeed in acquiring it? The biography of the collector reveals the interests that are reflected in his library. Johannes Karl Hartwig Schulze3 was born in 1786 in Bruel, a small town on the Elbe River in the Prussian province of Mecklenburg. The boy’s father was a ranking customs official at Dömitz and his family’s circumstances were comfortable. Young Johannes was educated at the prestigious private school Kloster Berge and later at the University in Halle, where he studied classics with Friedrich August Wolf and theology with Friedrich Schleiermacher. After a year or so of academic vagabondage, Schulze was appointed to a position as Lutheran pastor and professor at Weimar, where he came to know well all the intellectual lights of the age, among them Goethe (who described him as a "bright young scholar"4), Wieland, Schopenhauer, and numerous others.

Portrait of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
(1770-1831), friend and protégé of Johannes Schulze
(from Projekt Gutenberg-DE)
In 1812, Schulze went as school director to Hanau, near Frankfurt, where, in 1818, he attracted the attention of the Prussian chancellor Hardenberg. Schulze was appointed, only 32 years of age, to a high position in the Prussian educational bureaucracy, which under the influence of Wilhelm von Humboldt and others was becoming the most progessive force in European education. There he remained for the next forty years, becoming (with his immediate superior, education minister Altenstein) the "true creator of Prussian higher education." Especially with the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Schulze was to develop a close friendship. He championed the spread of Hegelian philosophy at Prussian universities through appointments to chairs in many disciplines, in the view of many elevating Hegelianism to the status of a state dogma. Hegel’s enormous influence on all disciplines of 19th century learning, including history, philology, and theology, is no doubt attributable to Schulze ’s active advocacy.

Schulze was also a lifelong collector of books. Even as a young student, Schulze had established his own personal library. As a 20-year-old, he prepared a first catalog of the 193 books it then contained. As he grew older, in Weimar and in Hanau, and especially after the move to Berlin, he came to know all the prominent antiquarian booksellers of Prussia—Fincke, Eichler, von Asher, among others—and became a frequent (and feared) bidder at Berlin book auctions. He was especially knowledgeable in classical literature, philosophy, fine bindings, and, of course, in all matters of public education. Probably his greatest coup was the purchase in 1826 of the library of the Amsterdam school director Van Bergen that had been inherited by an aristocratic, but bibliographically uninterested Prussian cavalry lieutenant. The military man was happy to accept 400 Thaler to be rid of the boxes in his Berlin apartment. Schulze easily recouped his purchase price by selling off the duplicates. The Van Bergen collection that Schulze acquired in this way included many notable rare works of Dutch provenance. Ultimately, Schulze's collection included thirteen incunabula (books printed before 1501), as well as numerous 16th and 17th century Aldines and Elsevirs. Due to his high position in the Prussian education bureaucracy, but also earlier as a respected teacher and school director, Schulze frequently received books and dissertations for his library as gifts from scholarly authors all over Germany, often with dedications. Among these signed works are books by the theologian Konstantin von Tischendorf and the linguist and fairy tale collector Wilhelm Grimm.

When Schulze died in February 1869, the decision how to dispose of his extraordinary library was left to his heirs. In July 1869, Schulze's son Max offered his father’s library to the Prussian government for the high but worthy price of 7500 Thaler—the equivalent at the time of about 7000 US dollars. The Prussian government, in financial straits at the time on the eve of war with France, declined the purchase.


Title page of Hrodotou logoi oirer erika lountai mousai, with text attributed to Herodotus, printed in 1502 by Aldus Manutius in Venice: one of the first known uses of the famous Aldine dolphin and anchor printing mark. A Schulze acquisition, now at Northwestern

Daniel Bonbright, professor of Latin and, from 1858 on, Northwestern's librarian. Bonbright "discovered" Schulze's library while on a study trip to Europe in 1869. (Northwestern University Archives)

At about the same time, however, Daniel Bonbright (1831–1912), a professor of Latin at Northwestern and, between 1858 and 1865, the librarian of the university, was visiting Europe and heard of the availability of the Schulze library from an American consul.5 Bonbright had studied in Bonn and Göttingen and realized at once that this could represent a unique opportunity for his university. He traveled to Berlin to inspect the collection, wisely also commissioning an independent evaluation by Wilhelm David Koner (1817–1887), the librarian at the Royal University in Berlin. Koner's report, dated March 17, 1870, extolled the value of this "painstakingly" assembled collection, concluding that "for a new university, where it is desired to establish a library in aid of the studies there to be pursued, the purchase of this collection[,] remarkable in many directions, is to be warmly recommended. It would at least serve as an admirable nucleus around which a great library might gradually grow."

This was all the encouragement Bonbright needed. He wrote then university president Haven with his recommendation that the collection be purchased, and the university responded immediately by authorizing Bonbright to negotiate with Schulze's heirs and effect the acquisition. University trustee Luther L. Greenleaf (d. 1886) agreed to finance the purchase through the sale of several pieces of real estate he owned, one each on Forest and Greenwood Avenues, plus "a part of a certain lot in the Robinson Farm, together with a home on it." With this moral and financial backing, Bonbright rapidly reached agreement with Schulze’s heirs and agents in Berlin, and the Prussian financial and customs authorities did nothing to block the shipment of this cultural treasure to the United States. Quick action by Professor Bonbright, trustee Greenleaf, and the university administration may have saved the deal, for by late July 1870, just as the huge wooden crates with Johannes Schulze’s library were unloaded safely in Evanston, France and Prussia were mobilizing for war. As the crates were being unpacked in University Hall in the hot August weather, huge armies were fighting in the Rhineland.

After filling two rooms adjoining Northwestern's main library in University Hall for a number of years, Schulze's library of 20,326 volumes was integrated into the library's general collections, as it is to this day. Called "The Greenleaf Library" to commemorate the gift of a generous and far-sighted university donor, its contents are recorded in the five manuscript volumes that constitute the catalog compiled and maintained by Johannes Schulze himself. In addition to the numerous rare books from the early days of European printing—the editiones principes, or first printed editions, of the Greek and Latin classics, the Aldines, the Elsevirs—the Greenleaf Library is a "source of constant scholarly surprises," as Professor Peter Fenves of Northwestern's German Department says. Among the discoveries Fenves has made in Schulze’s library is one of the very few copies in America of the first serious work on the Kabbalah written in German. With the Greenleaf Library, Northwestern also became the owner of the only copy in North America of the major philosophical work of Friedrich Hölderlin’s closest friend, Isaak von Sinclair (1775–1815), namely the three-volume Wahrheit und Gewissheit ("Truth and Certainty"). Sinclair sent Schulze a dedication copy during Schulze’s tenure as school director in Hanau, in 1813. The Greenleaf Library contains one of the few complete sets of all four parts of Martin Schrettinger’s self-published treatise on library science (1808–1828)—the work that in fact coined the term "library science"—a book so rare that even the famed university library of Göttingen had to search for it on the antiquarian book market in the early 1900s. "Very few collections allow one to immerse oneself so completely in the often-forgotten world of early 19th century German literature and thought as this one does," says Peter Fenves.

Historic events happening continents apart may interact in strange ways, or not at all. German commentators have pointed out that had the Schulze library come up for sale just a year later, after the Franco-Prussian War had ended with a decisive German victory and wealth began to flow to the new German imperial capital of Berlin, the books would never have left the country. But another world-famous event of the year 1871 could have had just as negative an impact on the transaction. With the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871, the real estate fortune of Luther Greenleaf was destroyed, virtually overnight, and for years, the financial resources of Chicagoans would be devoted to reconstructing their city, not to acquiring exotic book collections in distant foreign capitals. What we today might call a "window of opportunity" was in fact a momentary constellation of favorable circumstances in two cities 8000 miles apart. It came and passed within less than a year—but fortunately Northwestern had acted in time.


1. Georg Leyh, Die deutschen Bibliotheken von der Aufkärung bis zur Gegenwart (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1956), reprinted from Handbuch der Bibliothekswissenschaft, 2d ed., vol. 3 (Stuttgart: Koehler, 1950- ): 18.

2. Karl M. Meyer, "Geschichte der Bibliothek des wirkl. geh. Oberregierungsrat D. Johannes Schulze zu Berlin," Zentralblatt für Bibliothekswesen 42 (1925), no. 12, 615-20.

3. Sources for this biographical sketch: M. Hertz, "Johannes Karl Hartwig Schulze," in Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, facs. ed. (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1967-71, vol. 33: 5-18; and Varrentrapp, C[onrad], Johannes Schulze und das höhere preussische Unterrichtswesen in seiner Zeit (Leipzig: Teubner, 1889).

4. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, "Über Calderon's "Der standhafte Prinz" [1812], in Werke: Anhang: Gespräche: 3. Band: 1811-1818, ed. Woldemar Freiherr von Biedermann (Leipzig: F. W. v. Biedermann, 1889): 35. Located using the online edition of Goethes Werke (Weimarer Ausgabe).

5. The following account is based on materials contained in the file "Greenleaf Collection," Northwestern University Archives. See also "History of Northwestern University Library: The Library in Old College. "


For further information, contact:

Jeffrey Garrett
Assistant University Librarian for Special Libraries
Director, Special Collections and Archives
Northwestern University Library
Evanston, IL 60208
(847) 467-5675