For the Love of Books
warthmore's libraries received an invaluable gift this fall: the complete library of William Slattery Lieberman '43 (1923-2005), a prominent New York museum curator. His collection, which arrived from New York by truck at the beginning of August, totals approximately 6,000 books - a rough estimate, since the collection has not been formally counted.
Lieberman's entry in the 1943 Halcyon suggests that his interests in book collecting and the arts began early: "According to those who are in the know, Bill lives in New York theatres and commutes to Swarthmore for seminars. ... Culture-merchant deluxe, he has written a large amount of creditable poetry and accumulated a library notable for French literature and books on art."
After graduating from Swarthmore, Lieberman moved to New York, where he began working for the Museum of Modern Art. He served there as a curator of prints and drawings from 1949 to 1979 before moving to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to become chairman of the Twentieth Century Art Department. During his long career, he wrote dozens of articles and contributed to a wide variety of exhibit catalogues and books. His vast knowledge of the art world is reflected in his collection, which covers art movements from the ancient world to the present, with a particular emphasis on modern art and on Japanese art and culture. Some of the treasures of the collection include a booklet of drawings by the artist Joan Miró; several rare early books on Picasso; and signed works by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marianne Moore, and William Somerset Maugham.
Some of you may have caught a glimpse of us working on this project in the locked compact shelving section on McCabe's lower level. Library staff and student workers, led by myself and Ed Fuller, have been working on sorting the collection into preliminary subject categories. When this stage of the project ends, Swarthmore faculty will survey the parts of the collection relevant to their subject areas and assist the library in deciding which books to add to McCabe's permanent holdings.
Sorting the books provided its own set of challenges. In some cases, we found so many books on a single artist (Matisse and Picasso, to name two) that we had to set aside separate shelf space for them. At other points, we discovered clusters of related books that spoke to years of dedicated collecting in particular subject areas. Certain topics recur again and again: Paris in the 1920s, the Bloomsbury Group in England, the history and culture of Australia, and the Surrealist movement in art, among others.
Working with the collection has been a fascinating experience. There's something strangely compelling about looking at someone else's books, even when you're just glancing at the bookshelves in the living room when you visit their home. An entire personal library of this size is like a window into the collector's personality.
Even though none of us at McCabe knew Bill Lieberman, his interests and preoccupations shine clearly through the books he left us. His library reveals not only an encyclopedic understanding of modern art, but also a life spent traveling, learning, and creating. Numerous guides to places as far apart as Japan and Mexico speak of his travels around the world. His tastes in reading ranged from classics of French literature in the original French to mystery novels and a huge collection of biographies and autobiographies.
Many of the books show a deeply scholarly mind at work, interested in virtually everything - Soren Kierkegaard, Morocco, the history of World War II, clothing design, classical archaeology - and attuned to all the key art movements of the 20th century. Others are decidedly offbeat (my personal favorite is The Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia). A number of the art books were written by Mr. Lieberman himself; the collection includes many copies of the catalogues for exhibits he curated.
William Lieberman will be greatly missed by his friends and colleagues in New York. Fittingly for such an ardent collector, he will also be remembered at Swarthmore through his books.