Dr. Rosenbach and Mr. Lilly: Book Collecting in a Golden Age

By Joel Silver. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2011. 170 pp. $49.95 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1-5845-6295-5.

Those of us whose research relies upon the Lilly Library have felt gratitude for the rich holdings of this institution and the knowledgeable, courteous staff who aid our use of the collection. Even before one enters the reading room, the collection’s range is evident in skillfully curated exhibitions in the lobby, which display pages of Audubon birds, the naval life depicted in Patrick O’Brian’s novels, and much more. Dr. Rosenbach and Mr. Lilly relates a significant chapter in the story of how such an accumulation of wonders came to be.

Written by Joel Silver, who, for many years, has served as Associate Director and Curator at the Lilly Library, the book presents a narrative of how Josiah Kirby Lilly, Jr.’s personal collection developed between 1928 to 1949, plus a bibliographic list of major purchases from the Rosenbach Company, the noted antiquarian booksellers of Philadelphia whose collections now comprise the Rosenbach Museum and Library. The book features photographs of important books and bindings, as well as reproductions of letters between Lilly and Rosenbach, but the illustrative matter with the most charm is the woodcut that heads each chapter, showing the two men at opposite ends of a full bookshelf. Collectively, this material illuminates the culture and the relationships that contributed to the development of the Lilly Library on the campus of Indiana University. It is not an account of the entirety of the Lilly Library’s holdings, but rather the significant acquisitions that took place at a time when book collecting enjoyed a cultural vogue.

Its key themes include matters of provenance and taste, the way a personal collection ultimately makes a social contribution, and the relationship between collector and seller. Silver describes the interactions between Lilly and A.S.W. Rosenbach as evoking an era in the “continuum of collecting history” (2). Lilly participated in this period both through his strategic purchases and his self-published bibliographies that proudly called attention to his choices and lamented their cost by styling himself the “Busted Bibliophile of the Wabash” (23).

The works Lilly bought from Rosenbach during these years were primarily British and American literature. This broad description, however, only hints at the range of materials that came to be part of Lilly’s collection, from a first edition of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to The Book of Mormon. At times Silver quotes extensively, giving readers a strong sense of the times and the ethos of collecting in the era when Lilly’s attention turned to rare books and manuscripts. Silver’s own voice is clear, informed, and accents the importance of his subject. In both his own words and those of others, he indicates that Lilly’s developing interests in collecting led him to make sound purchases with lasting value and significance.

Silver demonstrates how Lilly’s interests were shaped by Rosenbach and other collectors. The role of collecting advice provided by leading figures like A. Edward Newton and the lists of prized works created by entities like the Grolier Club also played a part in Lilly’s developing collection. This book affords the reader, then, a glimpse into the formation of a key research collection and a time when buying printed books was very much the done thing.

Jennifer Burek-Pierce, University of Iowa