The RBML cataloging project is currently tackling the Gerhard Mayer collection, which consists of about 2,800 books by, and about, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The Rare Book and Manuscript Library obtained the collection in 1984, partly as a purchase and partly as a gift, from Gerhard Mayers widow, Ruth Mayer. Were able to catalog it today thanks to the Frederick J. and Margret L. Worden Endowment.
The collection was compiled by Dr. Gerhard Mayer of Champaign, Illinois, during the 1960s. It includes books written in 26 languages, and they range from early publications of Rilkes work to the late 1970s. As one of the project catalogers, Ive found myself asking (along with my coworkers) how Mayer managed to find so many books about Rilke. Were especially interested in how he managed to do this without the aid of the internet.
The catalog of the Gerhard Mayer Collection of Rainer Maria Rilke (compiled by Thomas D. Kilton) gives a brief explanation of Mayer’s book-collecting strategies:
"Constantly in pursuit of valuable primary source materials as well as criticism relating to Rilke, he travelled extensively throughout North America, South America, and Europe to visit bookstores and to bid at book auctions."
The books in this collection, and those that are clearly by or about Rilke, seem like they might have been straightforward to find and purchase. But how did Mayer find journals and books with only a brief mention of Rilke? Part of the collection consists of photocopied sections from journals or books that merely referenced Rilke. Mayer stapled these photocopies together in little booklets, which he labeled with his own shelf-mark. (All of the collection, in fact, is organized by Mayer’s personal shelf-marking system.) But the astounding thing, to us catalogers, is that some of these passages consist of only a few pages or paragraphs—or in one case, two lines of a poem. How did Mayer find them all?
Some of the books in his collection are quite rare. The most notable copy is described in the catalog:
"The single most valuable piece of the collection is a silk-bound edition of Rilke 's Leben und Lieder (1894), a collection of poems the author dedicated to his first love, Vally von David-Rohnfeld…In addition to a handwritten signature by David-Rohnfeld on the last page of the piece, the dedication page at the front of the volume contains an eight-line poem handwritten in ink by Rilke and followed by his signature, "Rene." Only five other copies of this rare book are known to be extant."
It’s rewarding to work on a collection that was put together by a man who was clearly passionate about his work!