Interview with Meghan Constantinou, Librarian, The Grolier Club of New York

*This blog post was originally written and translated for and first published on the blog of the Société bibliographique de France on 2 November 2019.

Close to Central Park, on a lively street in one of the most exclusive districts of New York City, the Upper East Side, there is an oasis where the visitor, dazzled by ultramodern skyscrapers, can temporarily escape the noises from the city to admire, in complete tranquility, exhibitions inspired by all that the book arts have to offer: The Grolier Club at 47 East 60th Street.

Ill. 1: Entrance to the Grolier Club on 47 East 60th Street

The Grolier Club, North America’s oldest and largest society for bibliophiles, was founded in 1884 by nine men who felt that the arts of printing and typography were in need of reform. The founding members envisioned a place of fellowship, where the book could be celebrated through publications, exhibitions, bookish activities, and a dedicated research library. The meeting that led to the formation of the Club was initiated by New York printing press manufacturer and book collector Robert Hoe, Jr. (1839-1909), who also served as its first President.

The Grolier Club is named after the great French bibliophile, Jean Grolier (1489/90-1565), who is known for the many beautiful bindings he commissioned for his library. His ex-libris, “Io. Grolieri et Amicorum,” encapsulates the generous spirit of fellowship that pervades the Club. At present, the membership is composed of over 800 men and women from the United States and abroad.  

Ill. 2: François Flameng, Jean Grolier in the House of Aldus Manutius, 1894. Oil on canvas, 73 x 81 in. (Collection of the Grolier Club).

In accordance with the Club’s mission statement to promote “the study, collecting, and appreciation of books and works on paper, their art, history, production, and commerce,” the Library collects, preserves, and makes accessible materials dedicated to the history and art of the book. Strengths of the collection include bibliographies, histories of printing and graphic processes, type specimens, fine and historic examples of printing, bookbinding, illustration, and, in particular, the literature of antiquarian book collecting and the book trade. The collection is composed of approximately 10,000 rare books; 50,000 monographs; 10,000 prints, drawings, and photographs; 1500 linear feet of archives; and 200,000 bookseller and auction catalogues (and growing!) [1]. Library holdings are focused on works from North America and Western Europe, with particular strengths in the United States, France and the British Isles. The majority of these items can be found in the online catalogue.

The charming reading room, inspired by the architecture of the college libraries of Oxford, was designed in 1917 by Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, a book designer and one of North America’s leading architects. In the month of September, I had the pleasure to work in this space while conducting research for the MEDIATE project (Measuring Enlightenment. Disseminating Ideas, Authors and Texts in Europe (1665-1830)​” [2]. While there, I spoke with Meghan Constantinou, head Librarian since 2011 and a Club member since 2013. Her research interests include the history of private collecting, women’s book ownership, and provenance studies.

Ill. 3: Meghan Constantinou, Librarian

What place do rare books hold in your institution?

Our rare book collection is central to our institution and its mission. The Grolier Club was founded upon an appreciation for the book as a material object, and many of our members are collectors, antiquarian booksellers, rare book librarians, and book artists. An important part of our collection consists of books that are unique or extremely rare. With the advent of e-books and digitized texts, our commitment to preserving and promoting the physical book has only deepened.

Could you tell us about the provenance of your collections?

Our rare book collection is built upon a series of major donations from Grolier Club members, which are regularly supplemented through additional gifts and purchases. Many of our most important specimens of early printing, including a large portion of our nearly 50 incunabula, were donated in 1894 by David Wolfe Bruce, the proprietor of a New York City type foundry. Major gifts of English and French auction catalogues were made by Waters S. Davis and Lucius Wilmerding in the 1930s; and, again in 1961, by Lionel and Philip Robinson. In 1957, we received a monetary bequest from New York City antiquarian bookseller, Lathrop C. Harper, which now makes up a sizable portion of the Library’s total endowment. In 1997, we received the Sir Thomas Phillipps collection assembled by the collector and philanthropist, Harrison Horblit. Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872), was an English collector and a notorious “bibliomaniac,” having amassed over 100,000 printed books and manuscripts in his lifetime. The Horblit collection includes, among other things, hundreds of annotated auction and bookseller catalogues owned and marked up by Phillipps, as well as the collector’s own heavily annotated copy of his printed private library catalogue of manuscripts (Catalogus librorum manuscriptorum in bibliotheca D. Thomae Phillipps, bart. A.D. 1837 [Middle Hill], 1837-[1871]).

What would you say are its distinguishing features?

Since the early 1920s, The Grolier Club Library has developed a particular focus on the literature of antiquarian book collecting and the book trade, including book catalogues of all types—printed and manuscript inventories of private libraries, catalogues of antiquarian booksellers, and book auction sales. Our holdings of book auction catalogues, dating from the early 17th century to the present, are now among the most comprehensive in the United States, and, along with the papers of important bibliophiles, bibliographers, and antiquarian book dealers, have long been recognized as an important and often unique resource for Library patrons. Within the collection, we are particularly strong in pre-1830 French auction sale catalogues.

Ill. 4: Catalogue des livres de feu M. Maigret, capitoul de Toulouse (Paris, R. Davidts, 1752) : manuscript supplement containing books sold “under the table.”

We are also distinguished by our commitment to cataloguing and making our book trade materials accessible to researchers. We save and catalogue all auction and bookseller catalogues that we receive in the mail, adding them to the reference collection for research use. We also make concerted efforts to fill in gaps, so that we have complete or nearly complete runs for many important North American and Western European dealers. Many of our early book sale catalogues are annotated with prices and buyers’ names, allowing researchers to study the history of the book trade and private and institutional collecting.

Could you describe some books which you consider typical of your collection?

One of our most frequently requested items is our Lauderdale set of 71 early English book auction and bookseller catalogues, dating between 1674 and 1701. Bound in six volumes, this collection contains virtually one-third of the English book auction catalogues known prior to 1689. It was assembled by James Maitland, 8th Earl of Lauderdale (1759-1839), Scottish collector and politician. Recently, one of our William H. Helfand fellows was excited to discover the auctioneer’s copy of one of these catalogues, marked with the prices and the names of the Oxford colleges that purchased items at the sale.

Ill. 5: Annotated sale catalogue from the Lauderdale collection (Photo courtesy of Yelda Nasifoglu).

Another remarkable item is the manuscript inventory of the private library of Madame de Pompadour, compiled after her death by her librarian. This catalogue is interesting not only for its content and association value, but also for its chilling history. One of the flyleaves bears the stamp of the French 2nd Armored Division, indicating that the catalogue was part of the personal collection of Adolf Hitler found at Berchtesgaden on 4 May 1945. Thus far, our efforts have failed to turn up information about the owner from whom it was stolen in the war.

Ill. 6 : Manuscript catalogue of the library of Madame de Pompadour, with a stamp indicating that the book was found in May 1945 in the collection of Hitler at Berchtesgaden.

There are marvelous treasures in the institutional archives of The Grolier Club as well. One of my favorite items is the prospectus for the famous title-page designed by Bruce Rogers for our 1933 edition of Fra Luca de Pacioli’s 1509 Divina proportionae, a Renaissance treatise on proportion in roman letter design. The prospectus shows that Rogers originally considered a mix of capital and lowercase letters for the title-page but ultimately decided to go with all capitals. The Grolier Club Fra Luca is today acknowledged as one of the most beautiful books of the twentieth century.

Ill. 7: Prospectus and final title-page of the 1933 Grolier Club edition of Fra Luca’s Divina proportionae.

Finally, I would like to mention our contemporary fine bindings collection. I particularly love a bespoke binding by Florent Rousseau, decorated with examples of alphabets drawn from the typographic archives of the Imprimerie nationale. This binding was made for a copy of the catalogue produced to accompany our 2011 exhibition featuring treasures from the archives of the Imprimerie nationale.   

Ill. 8: Binding for an exhibition catalogue made by Florent Rousseau.

How do you encourage the use of rare books and researchers’ awareness of your collections?

We strongly encourage active use of our collections. Although The Grolier Club is a private club, our Library is open to all qualified researchers—members and non-members alike—on equal terms. Typical users include private collectors, antiquarian booksellers, academic scholars, and graduate students. In addition, the Library offers two research fellowships per year (William H. Helfand Fellowship), enabling scholars to take advantage of its unique collections. 

How do you showcase your rare book collections for a broader public?

We target the broader public in a few ways. I regularly host visits from students and other groups with interests in the book arts. These groups come to our Library to learn about the history of the book and graphic arts through hands-on presentation and teaching. I have done classes on the history of private collecting, provenance research, and the history of type design, to name a few.  

We have also had success promoting our collections electronically. We maintain a Grolier Club Library blog, where my staff and I regularly post essays on interesting objects from our collection. We also have an active Instagram page, which currently has over 2400 followers. Digitization has been another valuable tool. Although we do not have the resources to digitize our collections on a large scale, we have been able to digitize a collection of over 2000 women’s bookplates, a small group of French trade cards, and our journal, The Grolier Club Gazette, thanks to the support of the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO), a regional non-profit organization.

Ill. 9: Carte d’adresse of Rapilly, bookseller and seller of prints.

What do you feel is the most pressing issue faced in your line of work today?

Equity, diversity and inclusion are major issues facing our profession. Rare books collections in institutional libraries have tended to disproportionately represent the experiences of culturally dominant groups. We need to remain aware of the fact that the materials we choose to preserve and collect in our institutions are those most likely to be used in the future to write our human history. To gain a more balanced perspective, we need more members from historically under-represented groups on our staffs, and we need to acquire more diverse materials for our collections.


Interviewed by Helwi Blom, Radboud University, Nijmegen

[1] The terminology used to designate different types of printed catalogues circulating in the 17th and 18th centuries can be confusing. Bibliographic projects and studies which describe these catalogues or analyze their contents have the tendency to group them under the name “catalogues de vente” or”‘auction catalogues.” In reality, only a portion of the catalogues in question were produced for the purpose of an auction sale. It is necessary to distinguish the assortment of sale and bookseller catalogues from the catalogues of institutional and private libraries. See on this point, Nicole Masson, « Typologie des catalogues de vente » in Annie Charon et Élisabeth Parinet (eds.), Les ventes des livres et leurs catalogues, XVIIe-XXe siècle, Paris Publications de l’École nationale des chartes, 2000, pp. 119-127. Available online at <http://books.openedition.org/enc/1411>. See also Helwi Blom, Rindert Jagersma and Juliette Reboul, «Printed Private Library Catalogues as a Source for the History of Reading », in Jonathan Rose and Mary Hammond (eds.), The Edinburgh History of Reading 1: Early and Modern Readers, Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming (April 2020).

[2] I would like to thank the Grolier Club for generously awarding me a William H. Helfand fellowship to carry out research on early modern French private library catalogues.

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