A Collector’s Collection:The Rosenbach Museum & Library



MB: Yes. We are essentially a university rare books department without a university. Our constituency is the city of Philadelphia. We feel a great responsibility to come up with acquisitions and programming that meets the needs of our immediate community. Also, we get donations. Our collection has grown by one third since the brothers died. We get donations all the time, and we welcome them.

AT: There is something about the founding of this Museum that I feel we still haven’t fully touched upon. I guess my question is: why after the brothers’ death was there this sense, this need, to make a public space to commemorate them and their collections? I suppose I’m asking for more of a justification or sense of mission on the part of the Museum and its founders.

MB: You ask a good question. During Dr. Rosenbach’s career, he always talked about the importance of private collectors to the transmission of history. He actually saw the collectors’ role as more important than that of the academics. Collectors collect national treasures. They are the ones who decide, or decided, that some item, be it a book or a manuscript, was worth keeping. Dr. Rosenbach always thought that there was something sort of sad about great collections going to institutions. He felt that collections should rightly be in the hands of collectors. They should be passed down that way as living history. This is in a sense what the Museum is all about. It’s all about the collectors’ role in creating and transmitting history.

I should say also that during Dr. Rosenbach’s time he always felt that it was important that his collections be, in some way, accessible to the public. During Dr. Rosenbach’s time he gave access to his collections to collectors. He felt that it was important, no, that it was his responsibility, to give such access to scholars and collectors. There was always a civic dimension to the Doctor’s work.

Part of Dr. Rosenbach’s appeal to the men of affairs with whom he did the major part of his business was the fact that, whisky-drinking bookseller that he was, he was willing to involve himself in communal affairs. What bookseller ever did so, so extensively? That the Doctor was president of the American Jewish Historical Society and regularly conducted its meetings, that he was president of the American Friends of the Hebrew University…at a time when causes in Palestine did not have the widespread appeal that Israeli causes were to have a decade later…, that he was on the board of the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and Dropsie College, and nominally on committees without end, made men who had accepted the standard of richesse oblige feel that buying books from the Doctor was an act of camaraderie as well as a means of acquiring items to enhance a collection.
---Rosenbach, p.466.