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$300 million library donated to Princeton University includes thousands of medieval manuscripts and early printed books

William Scheide has left his collection of rare books and manuscripts to Princeton University. It is believed to be worth about $300 million, making it the largest gift in the university’s history.

Vivid reds, pinks and greens of the illustrations run alongside the text in the Gutenberg Bible, the first printed Bible, which was produced in Mainz, Germany, in 1455. Photo by Natasha D'Schommer, Princeton University
Vivid reds, pinks and greens of the illustrations run alongside the text in the Gutenberg Bible, the first printed Bible, which was produced in Mainz, Germany, in 1455. Photo by Natasha D’Schommer, Princeton University

Scheide, a 1936 Princeton University alumnus who died in November at age 100, had continued a collection that was started by his grandfather in 1865. The collection has been kept at Princeton University since 1959.

The collection goes back to the Middle Ages, and includes thousands of Italian notarial documents dating from about 1200 to 1650. The documents include wills, dowers, pious donations to churches, leases, business contracts, and other legal documents, and with more than 500 coming from the towns Vicenza and Fabriano; 100-200 each for Bergamo, Tirano, and Caravaggio; and scattered documents for Asti, Beneventum, Ferrara, Florence, Venice, Verona, and many other northern Italian towns.

This illuminated copy of "De Officiis" (On Duties or On Obligations) was published in 1466 in Mainz, Germany. The Latin text was written in 44 B.C. by Marcus Tullius Cicero, who discussed his view of the best way to live, behave and observe moral obligations. Photo by Natasha D'Schommer / Princeton University
This illuminated copy of “De Officiis” (On Duties or On Obligations) was published in 1466 in Mainz, Germany. The Latin text was written in 44 B.C. by Marcus Tullius Cicero, who discussed his view of the best way to live, behave and observe moral obligations. Photo by Natasha D’Schommer / Princeton University

The Library also holds a substantial part of the archives of an Italian monastery – the Benedictine (later Silvestrine) abbey of Saint Vittore delle Chiuse was founded in the 10th century near the town of Fabriano in the March of Ancona. It includes hundreds of documents dating from 1007 until the beginning of the 15th century.

William Scheide and his family also collected a vast amount of rare early printed book, including the first six printed editions of the Bible, starting with the 1455 Gutenberg Bible. Among the other treasures in the collection are an original printing of the Declaration of Independence; Beethoven’s autograph (in his own handwriting) music sketchbook for 1815-16; Shakespeare’s first, second, third and fourth folios; significant autograph music manuscripts of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Wagner; a lengthy autograph speech by Abraham Lincoln from 1856 on the problems of slavery; and General Ulysses S. Grant’s original letter and telegram copy books from the last weeks of the Civil War.

Anthony Grafton, a specialist in the cultural history of Renaissance Europe and Princeton’s Henry Putnam University Professor of History, calls the library a “treasure house” for students and scholars.

“At its core, the Scheide Library is the richest collection anywhere of the first documents printed in 15th-century Europe,” Grafton said. “But its magnificent books and manuscripts illuminate many areas, from the printing of the Bible to the ways in which the greatest composers created their music.”

Scheide continued to build the collection until shortly before his death, often with the advice and support of his wife, Judy McCartin Scheide.

“This collection is the fulfillment of the dreams of three generations of Scheide book men,” McCartin Scheide said. “Having it reside permanently at Princeton is a testament to the joy Bill took in sharing the books, papers, manuscripts, letters, music and posters with others — those were some of his happiest times. He loved showing people — especially young people who had never seen anything like this before — the collection, letting them touch the books and experience what he called ‘the wow factor.'”

University Librarian Karin Trainer said that the Scheide Library will remain intact as a distinct collection.

“It will continue to be housed together, and no book or document will be removed from it,” Trainer said. “We have gradually been digitizing selections from the Scheide collection, including the Gutenberg Bible, and making them available through the University’s website. We intend to continue that work to share this incredible collection worldwide.

This 2013 documentary takes a look at the Scheide Library:

“Through Bill Scheide’s generosity, one of the greatest collections of rare books and manuscripts in the world today will have a permanent home here,” said Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber. “It will stand as a defining collection for Firestone Library and Princeton University. I cannot imagine a more marvelous collection to serve as the heart of our library. We are grateful for Bill Scheide’s everlasting dedication to Princeton and his commitment to sharing his breathtaking collection with scholars and students for generations to come.”



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