"A collection ... of the finest illustrated books that can be procured, of any country and in any language ... bound in handsome bindings representing the work of the most noted book-binders of all countries..."
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The Titanic disaster portrayed on a
contemporary songsheet coverSometime in 1910, according to an often-repeated story that has acquired the status of legend, William Augustus Spencer visited the new central building of the New York Public Library, still under construction at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. He was impressed—so impressed that he vowed there and then that he would bequeath his personal collection of fine illustrated books in fine bindings to the Library. He then returned to Paris, where he made his home. For his next visit to New York, in April 1912, he booked passage from Cherbourg, France, on the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic.
Spencer was not among the passengers who were saved on the terrible night of April 14. But he had made good on his promise, and when details of his estate were made public, it was found that he had left the Library "a library composed chiefly of French books," whose value was appraised at $40,779. But this represented only a part of his bequest to the Library; there was more in cash. Moreover, one clause in his will would soon augment the value of his gift considerably.
William A. Spencer's obituary,
published in the New York Times, May 9, 1912
The Spencer Collection of the New York Public Library was duly established, and its kernel, Spencer's own books, went on display in the year following their donor's demise. Details may be found in an article by Henry W. Kent in the Bulletin of the New York Public Library, v. 18, no. 6 (June 1914); a catalog of the collection follows. Images of many of Spencer's own bindings are available in the Library's Digital Gallery.
One of William A. Spencer's own finely bound books.
This is a binding by Émile Mercier, from 1909But Spencer's own books, though they impressively document a certain era in taste in bookbinding and book illustration, represent only a small part of his legacy. In Chapter 18 of Harry Miller Lydenberg's History of the New York Public Library (1923), available online in its pre-publication form in the Library's Bulletin for July 1921, the details of the bequest clause in his will were given. Here's an excerpt:
[Spencer's] plans for the development of the collection were set forth at length in the tenth clause of his will. Here he directed his executors to convey to the Library on the death of his wife one half his residuary estate, to be invested as a separate fund, the income of which was to be used for "the purchase of handsomely illustrated books" which were to be handsomely bound if not purchased in this condition. He went on to say: "In short it is my wish, if the Trustees of The New York Public Library accept this bequest, that they form a collection thereby increasing the bequest made in the eighth clause of this my Last Will and Testament, of the finest illustrated books that can be procured, of any country and in any language, and that these books be bound in handsome binding representing the work of the most noted book-binders of all countries, thus constituting a collection representative of the arts of illustration and bookbinding."
Mrs. Spencer died on October 13, 1913, and the fund for the development of the Spencer Collection was duly established. The principles set forth in the will of William Augustus Spencer have guided the Collection's curators ever since in their quest for the crème de la crème of the world's bibliophiliac treasures, and the result today is a collection of fine illustrated books, fine bindings, and illuminated manuscripts that is perhaps unsurpassed in beauty, breadth, depth and scope in any public institution in the United States, if not the world.
The Spencer Collection, like other special collections of the New York Public Library, is open to the public, but special permission to use it must be requested in advance.
In blog posts to follow, I will present some of my own personal favorites among the Spencer Collection treasures that have passed through my hands, as one of the lucky people whose job description includes toiling as a cataloger of these volumes.