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UI Classics Library receives NEH grant to microfilm works

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor
(217) 333-2177;


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A collection of rare, priceless and perishable 19th century European dissertations and other short scholarly works on Latin and Greek literature, history and civilization, will get a new life – and a wider readership – thanks to a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to the University of Illinois Classics Library.

The grant of $85,000 over two years will allow the Classics Library to
microfilm – and then circulate – more than 3,000 items in its Dittenberger-Vahlen Collection, the combined private collections of two prominent 19th century German classicists.  The grant is part of a $885,000 NEH grant, announced in early April, to the Committee on Institutional Cooperation’s Center for Library Initiatives.  The CIC is a consortium of Big Ten universities and the University of Chicago.

The UI Library acquired the private collections of Wilhelm Dittenberger (1840-1906) and Johannes Vahlen (1830-1911) in 1907 and 1913, respectively.  Dittenberger’s collection consists of 5,600 books and 2,000 pamphlets; Vahlen’s consists of 10,000 books and 15,000 pamphlets.

According to classics librarian Bruce Swann, who will direct the UI preservation project, “the vast majority of the titles in the scholars’ collections are in Latin and German and on topics pertaining to the classics, but there is also a surprising range of topics, including modern German and English literature.”

Among the titles to be microfilmed are (translated from original languages): “Aristotle’s On the Soul,” by Christian Belger, 1878; “The Palatine Hill,” by T. Desjardins, 1874; “The Influence of Horace’s Art of Poetry on German Literature of the 18th Century,” by J. Bintz, 1892; and “The Latin Quotations in the Plays of the Most Important Predecessors of Shakespeare,” by Alfred Dorrinck, 1907.  Some of the pieces include the notations of Vahlen or earlier owners in them.

Dittenberger was an eminent epigraphist, or scholar of classical inscriptions, and a professor at Halle University in Halle, Germany, for more than 33 years.  He also extensively studied the style and language of Plato and Aristotle.  Dittenberger believed that the study of inscriptions was not an end in itself, but a means for attaining more accurate knowledge of the history and public life of ancient Greece.

Vahlen was a classical philologist, or scholar of the Greek and Latin languages and literatures, primarily at Humboldt University in Berlin.  He wrote about a wide range of Greek and Latin authors, including Aristotle, Ennius, Plautus and Horace.  The National Union Catalog of pre-1956 Imprints lists more than 200 titles by Vahlen.  His intention was to gather all minor and easily perishable contributions to classical studies. 

Vahlen’s efforts have resulted in an exceptionally comprehensive collection, which dramatically documents an 80-year period of German scholarly activity on all levels of classical instruction.  One of his best students, Theodor Mommsen, went on to become a great historian of the Roman world.

When the project is completed, scholars and others will be able to request microfilmed copies of the material and access bibliographic information about it online. 

Classics scholars close to home prize the Dittenberger-Vahlen Collection.  Howard Jacobson, UI classics professor, described it as “priceless,” noting that it is not uncommon for him to find items in it “that, according to the National Union Catalog, do not exist anywhere else in the U.S.A.”

His colleague, William M. Calder III, said that the collection “contains papers of the highest philological expertise concerning authors and subjects of continuing concern to those active in the serious study of the ancient world.”

Yet another UI classics professor, David Sansone, noted that he has been able, “merely because of my presence at the UI, to locate and profit from works of scholarship that are unavailable to many (in some cases, to all other) scholars.”

The microfilming will be done at the UI Library.