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History of the Berg Collection

The establishment of the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, on October 11, 1940, was made possible by the avid book-collecting and generosity of the brothers Henry W. Berg (1858-1938) and Albert A. Berg (1872-1950). Henry was born in Hungary and immigrated to America with his parents in 1862; Albert was born fourteen years later in New York City. Six other siblings completed the family-three sisters and three brothers. Both Henry and Albert attended City College and Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons. After graduation, Henry joined the staff of Mount Sinai Hospital, where he specialized in the treatment of infectious diseases; shortly thereafter, he was appointed to the faculty of the College of Physicians and Surgeons. Albert, too, joined Mount Sinai, gaining nation-wide renown as an innovator in the field of abdominal surgery. The two bachelors lived together for most of their later lives in a town house on East 73rd Street, off of Fifth Avenue, which they filled with their rare editions of English and American literature.

In 1937, the Bergs approached The New York Public Library's Board of Trustees to propose donating their collection to the Library. They found a warmly receptive audience. But in 1938, Henry died, leaving Albert to conclude the negotiations. This he did in February 1940, donating and endowing the collection in his brother's memory. The opening celebration, attended by Mayor LaGuardia, was held in the Berg reading room in October. The collection of literary rarities comprised some 3,500, mostly printed books and pamphlets, representing the work of more than 100 authors, though the collection also contained groups of prints and drawings, a few manuscripts and about two dozen letters (including nine from John Ruskin to Fred Harris). The most heavily represented authors were Dickens (104 items, if one counts as single items the books-in-parts and several collections of individual prints and drawings), who had been Albert's favorite since his days as a page in the stacks of the Cooper Union library; Thackeray (31 items), Henry's favorite; and Sir Walter Scott (27 items), beloved to them both.

The Dickens holdings included the 1867 diary of his second tour of America, all of his first separate editions and most of his periodical contributions, six books-in-parts, and several collections of drawings and plates by his illustrators. But though the Bergs' collection was rich in nineteenth-century and especially Victorian authors, its rare editions spanned the centuries from Edmund Spenser to Eugene O'Neill. Such rarities included the first edition of Spenser's Colin Clouts Comes Home Again (1595) and the first edition, first issue, of The Faerie Queene (1590-1596); Shakespeare's second folio (1632); the first edition of Milton's Poems (1645); a 1713 edition of Tasso's Orlando Furioso, whose final, unprinted page contains Coleridge's hand-written comments, in Italian, on the work; the first edition, first issue, of Sterne's A Sentimental Journey (1768); and a perfect copy, gatherings unopened, of the Kilmarnock 1786 edition of Burns's Poems.

Though the works of important American authors were well represented, the collection was heavily weighted toward the English (including sixty of the Grolier Club's One Hundred Books Famous in English Literature, 1902), a numerical bias too severe to be explained solely by the relatively short history of American literature. The English authors most prominently represented (aside from the triumvirate of Dickens, Thackeray, and Scott) were Oliver Goldsmith, Byron, and Robert Louis Stevenson, each with 19 items; Kipling (17); John Dryden (12); Charles Lamb (12); and Oscar Wilde (12). Among the Americans, the favorites were Nathaniel Hawthorne (14), Poe (13), Longfellow (12), and Washington Irving (10).

A truism of book collecting is that author-annotated and otherwise extraordinary copies of rare editions usually bear a distinguished provenance. Accordingly, former owners of the brothers' books included many bibliophilic luminaries, such as Beverly Chew, John A. Spoor, John L. Clawson, Jerome Kern, Winston H. Hagen, and Walter Thomas Wallace. But the two collectors whose holdings would have the greatest impact on the Berg, transforming it into a scholarly resource of international stature, were W. T. H. Howe (1874-1939), the President of the American Book Company (Cincinnati), and Owen D. Young (b. 1874), a Presidential adviser, the founder and Chairman of RCA, the Chairman of General Electric, and Time's 1929 Man of the Year. To them belonged the two most extensive and important collections of English and American literature in private American hands. In September 1940, one month before the donation of the Berg Collection to the Library, Dr. Berg purchased Howe's collection of some 16,000 books and manuscripts. Among its highlights was a copy of Poe's Tamerlane (1827) and the copy of The Raven (1845) that Poe had inscribed to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with her letter of thanks tipped-in; the first edition, first issue, of Thomas Gray's An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church Yard (1751); the manuscript of Charles Lamb's The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple (an essay of Elia); a watercolor by Charlotte Brontë; Dickens's prompt copies for eleven of his novels, several of which were emended extensively in his hand; and the manuscript of George Gissing's Demos. Perhaps the most important feature of Howe's collection was that it was as rich in manuscripts as in printed materials.

Dr. Berg next set his sights on Owen D. Young's collection of some 15,000 books and manuscripts. He proposed that he pay Young only half of the collection's value, an arrangement that would make Young a co-donor of the collection to the Library. Young generously agreed to the proposal, and on May 8, 1941, his collection was incorporated into the Berg. Among its highlights was one of only three known copies of Bacon's Essaies (1598); most of the papers of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century novelist and diarist Fanny Burney; Keats's last letter to Fanny Brawne; a copy of Poe's Tamerlane with the wrappers (unlike Howe's copy); and numerous manuscripts by Burns, Sir Walter Scott, Coleridge, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, as well as by moderns, such as Joseph Conrad. Reflecting Young's eclecticism (much influenced by his wife), the collection also contained rare editions of nineteenth-century French, Italian, and Spanish literature, as well as several important incunabula (including first editions of Homer, Euclid, Kempis's Imitatio Christi, and Chaucer), historic documents (many reflecting early United States history), and even a letter by Luther's protégé Melanchthon. Like Howe's collection, Young's was as strong in manuscripts and correspondence as it was in printed material.

With the acquisition of the Howe and Young collections, the Berg metamorphosed from a somewhat old-fashioned, printed-book collection characterized by high-spot conservatism (with the exception of its great depth in Dickens and Thackeray), into one of the world's richest manuscript repositories of English and American literature, supporting bibliographical and textual scholarship, and the production of numerous scholarly editions. The presence in the Berg of Howe's and Young's combined holdings of 500 letters by Dickens and 200 by Thackeray was exploited with great success by the scholars and critics who led the post-War movement to rehabilitate the reputations of these novelists. Though the Berg has, over the past fifteen years, absorbed the archives of contemporary writers, and will continue to do so, the contours imparted to it by the Howe and Young collections will remain prominent. A fuller description of the Berg Collection's holdings profile may be found in the Collection Description.

Selected readings on the history of the Berg Collection

"Gift of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection," Bulletin of the New York Public Library, vol. 44, no. 882 (December 1940).

Lucy Gordan. "The Berg Collection to Turn Sixty," Antiquarian Book Monthly, February 2000.

Lola L. Szladits. Brothers: The Origins of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library. New York: The New York Public Library, 1985.

                    . Owen D. Young, Book Collector. With an Introduction by Josephine Young Case [exhibition catalog]. [New York]: The New York Public  Library, 1974.