NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Princeton Gifted Rare Books Valued At $300 Million


Some grandparents pass down their pocket watch, engagement ring, or the family china. About 107 years ago, William Scheide's grandfather left his family with a collection of books - rare books - really rare books. That collection grew to 2,500 items including an original printing of the Declaration of Independence and a Gutenberg Bible printed in 1455. And now after his death, William Scheide has left this collection, valued at $300 million to his alma mater, Princeton University. That's where it's long been kept. Joining me now to talk about this is Princeton librarian Paul Needham who's overseeing the Scheide collection. Paul Needham, welcome to the program.

PAUL NEEDHAM: Thank you very much. Glad to be here.

CORNISH: And I'm so sorry for your loss. You must have worked with Mr. Scheide for many years.

NEEDHAM: Yes I - well, I've known Bill - everybody calls him Bill, by the way - for well over 40 years. And I've been the librarian - the Scheide librarian since 1998.

CORNISH: One thing I understand is that in the house where William Scheide grew up, his bedroom was above his father's wood-paneled library, and he asked that the library be re-created in the Princeton library. Is that what people see when they go to visit this work?

NEEDHAM: Yes they do. The - it's all housed in one room, which is not an exact replication, but is very much in the style of his father's library room in Titusville, Pa. And as much as possible, the original furniture, the specially made stained-glass windows, bookcases were brought from Titusville to Princeton to be reinstalled in the room we now call the Scheide library.

CORNISH: So tell us a little more about what's in the collection. Some - we mentioned a Gutenberg Bible, but what are some other examples of the kinds of things he would collect?

NEEDHAM: He has dozens and dozens of extremely rare examples of early European printing showing the spread of printing outside the city of Mainz where it was invented to other parts of Europe. Many of those items are unique survivals. He has a very strong collection of significant music manuscripts because he was himself a music historian. He has a strong collection of Bach autographed material and scribal copies of Bach's compositions annotated by Bach, a wonderful sketchbook that Beethoven kept where he wrote down all his musical ideas when he was in Vienna about the year 1815. He has very strong and early colonial American printing.

CORNISH: Now Princeton has already begun to digitize some of William Scheide's collection, but what are your thoughts on the meaning of physical pages - right? - the collection itself?

NEEDHAM: They're the primary source material. And any amount of digitization can enhance that material, but it can never replace it. Really anybody who studies books and documents from the past will know that in unpredictable ways, there will be times when you can't answer the question that needs to be answered simply by looking at a digital representation of it, and you really need to look at the original to get the information that you need. And so really, digitization, which is a wonderful thing, works hand-in-hand with study of original objects.

CORNISH: That's Paul Needham, the Scheide Librarian at Princeton University. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

NEEDHAM: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.