Schlesinger's Library Enriches CUNY Stacks

 

Culling the book collection of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., above, fell to Graduate Center librarian Jane B. Fitzpatrick, left.
Like many New Yorkers, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. never seemed to have enough room for all of his books.

"My father's books filled the three rooms of his office in an apartment on East 51st Street,"said his son Andrew. "They were piled on the floor, on tables and bookcases and even overflowing the kitchen.You had to walk through a path between the piles."

So when Schlesinger, a former CUNY history professor, died in 2007, it was left to his family to determine what to do with more than 13,000 volumes.

They kept some for themselves and gave the most valuable to a Massachusetts antiquarian book dealer to sell. The rest — 5,809 hardcovers and 3,691 paperbacks — were donated to the University's Graduate Center library.

Thus, late on a winter day last year, acquisitions and collection-development librarian Jane B. Fitzpatrick met a rental truck from Boston to accept 9,500 volumes packed into 400 cardboard boxes.

"It's a very basic collection of books," Fitzpatrick said, "World War II, history, presidential politics, the Cold War, and everything and anything about Bobby and Jack Kennedy."

Through the spring and most of winter, Fitzpatrick and her crew culled the books. Each was recorded by a student and then inspected by a history or political science librarian. Those too damaged to keep were thrown out and those that were duplicates of books already owned by the library were considered as possible replacements. "It was a huge amount for one man to own and use,"said Fitzpatrick. "There were notes and papers in many volumes."

Schlesinger joined the CUNY faculty in 1966 as the Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities. He taught history in the Ph.D. program and when he retired in 1994, remained Schweitzer Chair.

Books lined the hallway outside Fitzpatrick's office and spilled into a vacant room nearby. Among the stash were several volumes on Churchill, biographies of presidents, a book on Cuba in 1933, and a comic strip book of "A Thousand Days" translated into Japanese. Schlesinger, who won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize twice, was an adviser to John F. Kennedy and chronicled his administration in "A Thousand Days." Tucked into the Japanese edition was a long-forgotten, type-written paper translating into English what Japanese authors had written in the frames.

From another box, Fitzpatrick pulled a complete set of cassette tapes of President Franklin Roosevelt's Fireside Chats. And one of the most surprising finds was a collection of children's books, some dating back to the mid 1800s. Schlesinger's name, in neat, careful script, is written in ink in some and others are signed by his father. Stashed away in her desk for safekeeping were three issues of LIFE magazine that Schlesinger had saved from December, 1941 — the month Pearl Harbor was bombed.

The Graduate Center library kept 300 books, other University campuses selected a little over 400. LaGuardia and City College took the most — about 140 each. The community colleges were especially interested in the collection. "Community Colleges have more of a need for books," Fitzpatrick said. "And these were mostly basic important titles in history and political science." Many volumes also were sold at the library booksale. More than 50 cartons were dispersed for donation or sale elsewhere, and another 50 boxes are still awaiting action.

It would have pleased Schlesinger that so many of his books ended up in so many CUNY libraries. "He did not collect books for their value but for their usefulness," said Andrew Schlesinger. "And he would be very happy to know that his books are being made available for other researchers."