Arturo Schomburg was a lifelong collector of books, pamphlets, manuscripts, and artwork relating to the African diaspora. Collecting, to him, was a way to recover Black history and document Black intellectual and cultural achievement. As he wrote in his 1925 essay "The Negro Digs Up His Past," "the Negro has been a man without a history because he has been considered a man without a worthy culture"; collecting evidence of this culture was a way to provide Black people with "the spiritual nourishment of our cultural past" and to tell "the full story of human collaboration and interdependence." He collected from all over the world, corresponding with booksellers in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and elsewhere, and traveled to Cuba and Spain on book collecting trips. Friends and acquaintances, many writers and bibliophiles themselves, often sent him books, frequently signed and inscribed to Schomburg.
In 1924, Schomburg, along with journalist John Edward Bruce, writer James Weldon Johnson, and others, formed a citizens committee to establish a reference collection in the 135th St. branch library devoted to "books and documents relating to the Negro race." Working with head branch librarian Ernestine Rose, the collection opened on May 7, 1925 as the Department of Negro Literature and History. In October of that same year, Rose wrote to Schomburg about "the possibility of obtaining your invaluable collection of Negro literature for our Library"; eventually, a sale was negotiated for $10,000, after NYPL received a grant from the Carnegie Corporation. Schomburg's collection, consisting of "2,932 volumes, 1,124 pamphlets, and many valuable prints and manuscripts," was delivered in 104 crates to the Central Research Library (now the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building) in May 1926 for cataloging before being deposited at 135th St. The collection vastly increased the size of existing Negro Division, and it became the "seed library" for the modern Schomburg Center—the foundation upon which the Center's current holdings of over 300,000 volumes were built.
From 2018–2020, librarians at the Schomburg Center undertook a project to identify the books and pamphlets that made up the original seed library, using bookplates, inscriptions, and other clues to determine which books had originally belonged to Arthur Schomburg. As of August, 2020, over 3,300 books and pamphlets have been identified as having been part of the 1926 sale. Work to identify more titles is ongoing, and a full list of seed library items is forthcoming.
To find these books at NYPL, search the catalog for "Schomburg, Arthur Alfonso, 1874-1938, former owner." or "Schomburg, Arthur Alfonso, 1874-1938, former owner, inscriber."
Sources: Helton, Laura. "Looking for Schomburg’s Library: A report on archival research at the New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and Columbia University," July 15, 2020.
Many of the books and pamphlets that were part of Schomburg's seed library have been digitized in part or whole. Illustrations from some of these books are available through NYPL Digital Collections, while others are fully available online through sources such as HathiTrust or the Internet Archive. Though not Schomburg's own copies (except in some rare cases on NYPL Digital Collections), the digitized books are the same editions as the ones in his collection.
The vast majority of Schomburg books that have been digitized are available on HathiTrust. These books can be browsed in the Schomburg Seed Library collection, which currently contains over 1,500 items and is continually updated as new digitized items appear.
To see if a particular book is available in digital form, search for it in the NYPL catalog; links to any digitized versions will appear in the catalog record like this: