The Library of Leander van Ess and the Earliest American Collections of Reformation Pamphlets

William A. Kelly (Scottish Centre for the Book, Napier University, Edinburgh, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 18 April 2008




Kelly, W.A. (2008), "The Library of Leander van Ess and the Earliest American Collections of Reformation Pamphlets", Library Review, Vol. 57 No. 4, pp. 330-332.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Some years ago a kind reviewer described one of my own publications as a model of how one should write a history of a library (Kelly, 1997). It is now my great pleasure to apply this description to someone else's work. “Part I. Historical Contexts” is a masterpiece of scholarship. Gatch's account of the purchase of Ess's library by the New York Theological Seminary, now better known as the Union Theological Seminary, is carefully researched, detailed in its information, cautious in its conclusions, and intellectually exhilarating.

The last quality is given a human dimension in part by the serendipity, which often accompanies scholarly research. Gatch recalls that when he was beginning to learn about Ess, he met in November 1992 a collateral descendant of Ess, Magda Heidenreich, who later introduced him to Johannes Alterberend, who was planning his biography. In the intervening years, Gatch's and Alterberend's family became friends. As I can testify, the bibliographical work required of a catalogue of a library is raised to an additional historical value by placing it in its intellectual context, and for this Gatch acknowledges his gratitude to Paul Needham, now at Princeton University. In order to raise his work to that higher level, Gatch had to conduct an extensive investigation of the history of the collecting of such early imprints by North American libraries. A very large number of early German works were acquired by public and private collectors. Gatch appends a tantalizing and considerable body of secondary works drawn from and reflecting nineteenth century bibliography, both in the USA and in the UK.

The fact that many of these works later changed hands, individually and collectively, does not diminish in any way the foresight of the original purchasers. What is sad is that, once transferred to the purchasing institution in North America, in some cases the collections lay unknown and unused for many years. This was certainly happening at the Union by and into the 1880s. This neglect is mirrored by the fate of the Dieterich's Collection in the National Library of Scotland, mentioned in passing by Gatch, of which the largest part is uncatalogued after nearly two centuries[1]. Gatch's fascinating account of this aspect of library history in North America makes me regret the failure of my attempt, made some years ago, to persuade the Library of Congress' curator of German books that a survey of such imprints would wonderfully complement the projects published under Bernhard Fabian's general editorship, Handbuch der historischen Buchbestände in Deutschland, Handbuch der historischen Buchbestände in Ősterreich and Handbuch deutscher historischer Buchbestände in Europa[2].

It is fortunate for us that Gatch's catalogue of the Reformation pamphlets in Ess's library has been able to add further locations to the ongoing database of sixteenth century works published in German‐speaking parts of Europe, and – still more importantly – to supply details of titles not previously recorded there. An interesting feature of the catalogue that tells us much about Ess as a bibliographer comes when Gatch appends Ess's own description of titles.

B0416 VD16ZV01988 (only registered copy)

Biblia, NT. Epistolae Petri

EPISTO // LA PRI‐ // OR DIVI PE‐ // TRI EX ERAS // MI ROTERO‐ // DAMI TRANS // LATIONE. // // (Lipsie ex officina Valentini Valentini Schuman // Anno domini. M.D.XXII.)…

LvE Cat. B416: “Epistola prior divi Petri ex Erasmi Roterodami translatione. Lipsie ex officina Valent. Schumann. 1522. 1 in 4to. Brosch.”

It should be noted that the discrepancy between Gatch's reading, “officiua”, and Ess', “officina”, may point in Ess' favour. Although Gatch's entry cannot be found online at the moment of writing, the VD16 database, both in printed and in electronic form, is not as free of typographical errors as one would wish.

To the standard lists of printers, publishers and booksellers, and places of publication, Gatch adds several concordances, which link his own entries with those of Ess's catalogues, and also with those found in more recently‐published standard works.

Gatch's statement on page 68 that an online version of the Verzeichnis des deutschsprachigen Schrifttums des 16. Jahrhunderts databank, known for short as VD16), is planned is a reminder of how even the most recent advances in print publication are still slower than modern online technology. This online version is highly important for those of us working in the area, even though it is not particularly user‐friendly. It has been available for some months as a service from the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (at http://gateway‐bayern.bib‐‐cgi'bvb‐suche?sid=VD16).

As is to be expected in even the best works of scholarship, there are some small points on which a reviewer long practised in this field can add a corrective note. Gatch states (p. 50) that many of Ess's pamphlets have a strip of paper pasted along the rear edges of spines to preserve and reinforce them after they were disbound. One can see evidence of this disbinding in many of the university dissertations in the Dieterichs Collection, but it was also used very frequently on pamphlets where there is no evidence of their having been bound in composite volumes or Sammelbände. This was a cheap and convenient way of strengthening the sewing of pamphlets, which the owner never intended originally to have bound. Another cheap way of binding such materials (again found in Dieterich as well as in the evidence from Ess himself) was to have pamphlets bound with highly decorative wallpaper. Furthermore, it was not unusual to have very large and think Sammelbände, as Gatch suggests. Such bulk makes them both difficult to handle and to hold open.

The work under review is attractively laid out and printed. Despite this, I found a large number of instances where words had been wrongly hyphenated. Greater attention to this would have been welcome. Even so Gatch has done me, and other readers and bibliographers, an enormous service by listing for future reading numerous titles on the building of collections of early German imprints built up during the nineteenth century in North America, It adds substantially to the bibliographical and reference literature on early German and related printed materials, such as the reviewer's own catalogue of pre‐1800 imprints in Germany and the Low Countries (to which a supplement is planned)[3].


  1. 1.

    The Dieterich Collection “comprises part of the huge library formed by Georg Septimus Dieterichs (1721‐1805), Count Palatine and Senator of Regensburg, in the second half of the eighteenth century. After his death, the library was auctioned over several years in Regensburg. However, the depressed state of the European economy after the Napoleonic wars ensured that the collection was sold slowly and comparatively cheaply. Foreign buyers were able to purchase items through the agents Gleditsch of Leipzig, and what appears to have been the majority of the collection was purchased by the Advocates' [sic] Library in 1820, for only £86.00. The collection in the National Library of Scotland consists of c.52,000 items, of which c.33,000 are academic theses of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, mostly German, but with a number of Dutch dissertations. There is also a large number of German sixteenth‐century polemical tracts written by Luther, Melanchthon and other leaders of the German Reformation and their opponents, and a considerable amount of miscellaneous material, including works by German Baroque writers, printed speeches and announcements, many of a local nature. There are also about 250 volumes, containing 1666 individual items, most of which are legal theses of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, held in the Advocates Library.” Information from the website of the National Library of Scotland at

  2. 2.

    Handbuch der historischen Buchbestände in Deutschland. Hrsg. von Bernhard Fabian. 27 Bde. Hildesheim: Olms‐Weidmann, 1992‐2000; Handbuch der historischen Buchbestände in Ősterreich. Hrsg. unter Leitung von Helmut W. Lang. 4 Bde. Hildesheim: Olms‐Weidmann, 1994‐1997; and Handbuch deutscher historischer Buchbestände in Europa. 12 Bde. In 15. Hildesheim: Olms‐Weidmann, 1997‐2000.

  3. 3.

    Reference Resources for Cataloguing German and Low Countries Imprints to ca.1800 (available only at http://alterdrucke.staatsbibliothek‐


Kelly, W.A. (1997), The Library of Lord George Douglas (ca.1667/8?‐1693?): An Early Donation to the Advocates Library (“Libri pertinentes” series, No. 5). LP Publications, Cambridge.

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