March 10

the Gutenberg Bible

“Hearing / Before the / Committee on the Library / House of Representatives / Seventy-first Congress / Second Session / on / H.R. 6147 / A bill authorizing the Secretary of the Treasury to pay to the Joint Committee on the Library the sum of $1,500,000 for the purchase of the collection of three thousand incunabula to be deposited in the Library of Congress and known as the Herbert Putnam Collection of Incunabula/March 10, 1930.”

So reads the title page of the hearing at which the Library of Congress acquired a magnificent collection of incunabula, including the finest copy of the Gutenberg Bible extant.

Dr. Otto H.F. Vollbehr of Berlin, a book-speculator, had taken an option on the parchment copy of the Gutenberg Bible owned by the Benedictine monastery of St. Paul, in Carinthia, Austria. He had also put together a huge collection of incunabula, which together with a Bible, he offered to the Library of Congress for $1,500,000. It was an exceedingly risky venture. Congressional action would be necessary, and the whims of the legislators when it came to purchasing books for the national library were notorious.

Congress had haggled over the acquisition of the great Thomas Jefferson library and also of the George Washington papers. It had refused to buy Washington’s library, which had been sold in London in 1844, although it was later returned to the United States and placed in the library of the Boston Athenaeum. It had lost in the same manner the original manuscript of Washington’s Farewell Address. The great library of the historian George Bancroft, consisting of almost twenty thousand books and manuscripts pertaining to American history, had also been turned down by the Congress. Vollbehr was therefore concerned when his speculation finally reached the halls of Congress. He was then so desperate for cash that he approached the great American book dealer A.S.W. Rosenbach for help. Dr. Rosenbach assisted him by taking an option on Vollbehr’s option of the St. Catherine copy of the Gutenberg Bible

The Hon. Ross A. Collins, Representative from the State of Mississippi, presented the bill to the House on February 7th, in a lengthy speech in which he traced the history of the Library of Congress and extolled the Vollbehr collection, buttressed by statements by most of the outstanding bookmen and librarians of the country. He ended his dissertation, saying:

“An unusual occasion is now offered to Congress to acquire a wonderful collection of 15th century printing, and at the same time to honor our librarian [Henry Putnam] for his thirty years of distinguished service. This is our last chance to have a copy of the Gutenberg Bible in the Library. It is conceded by all that such an opportunity will never come again. If these books go back to Europe they will be disposed of at auction, and few, if any, will find their way to the Library of Congress. It is a matter of grave doubt if the foreign governments will ever allow another Gutenberg Bible to leave their borders. These cradle books, representing, as they do, the earliest efforts of culture, thought, and printing should be preserved and kept by the United States Government for the people of America.”

The minutes of the hearing filled some 61 pages of testimony, and the bill was re-ported out. Both the House and the Senate passed it unanimously. President Hoover signed it immediately, making it possible for generations of Americans to view the finest known copy of the great Bible of Johann Gutenberg.

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