The library of the “American Bible Society” can rightly be called the ultimate specialty library: they collect a single book. They have in total 46,000 copies in 2,500 languages. The library has the greatest collection of bibles in North America.
The American Bible Society was founded in 1816 and by 1817 created a library. Today the community is in a modern, bright, and friendly building on Broadway close to Columbus Circle. On the first floor there is a museum with changing exhibits, and on the second floor is the collection with its heart, the rare books. Not surprisingly, normal classifications like the Dewey system are not very helpful in this collection. The shelves are ordered by language and publication date. Even those who have no deep inner connection to the book of books can detract from the fascination of this collection, like the first bible printed in America. It wasn’t printed in English – English bibles were easily imported from the English motherland – but rather in the language of the Algonquin Indians. In 1663, the book translated by Thomas Eliot was printed, and only 80 known editions still exist.
To the disappointment of not only the librarians, the group does not have a Gutenberg Bible. James Lenox, who together with John Jacob Astor created the New York Public Library, was also a member of the Bible Society, left his copy of a Gutenberg Bible to the New York Public Library. The Bible Society has “only” four original pages from Gutenberg’s printing press. This specialty library also has a multitude of other treasures like the first English bible printed in the USA. In 1782, the political situation made it difficult to get imports from England. A new translation of the bible was prepared and printed – and ordered by congress! A procedure that was no longer possible, after the Constitution in 1787 was anchored in the separation of Church and State.
A visit to the library of the American Bible Society shows the bible as a fascinating piece of cultural history.