Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 49
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
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Beautiful Images of Beautiful Books Lead to a Fruitful Meeting of Two Minds

Ellen Gilbert

Describing the Scheide Library books she photographed over a 10-year period to a standing-room-only crowd at the Princeton Public Library on Saturday, Natasha D’Schommer observed that “being precious doesn’t mean they should be locked away; they’re precious and we should experience them.” With its photographs of some of the rarest books and musical scores in the world, her newly published book, Biblio, published by Princeton University Press, is a testament to experiencing these books as beautiful objects.

The niece of Judy Scheide, who is married to the third generation owner of the collection, William H. Scheide, Ms. D’Schommer began the project as a college junior in 1993, and continued with twice-yearly visits to the Scheide Library at Princeton University’s Firestone Library. Mr. Scheide was always at her side for what she described as his own “tours” of the books. “He always had an immaculate eye for pulling out interesting things for me to see,” she said. One particularly overwhelming moment occurred when he took out a Beethoven sketchbook for her to look at, and she was struck by the “raw, creative process” she could sense in looking at its “bold slashes of the pen.”

“Natasha’s pictures are the most beautiful pictures of rare books I have seen,” said Mr. Scheide, and the mutual respect and appreciation between the young photographer and the nonagenarian philanthropist was in evidence at Saturday’s event. Ms. D’Schommer described her first visit to the library, when, believing it was a now-or-never moment, she held up and sniffed a first edition Shakespeare folio when she thought that Mr. Scheide’s back was turned. Hearing a yelp, she assumed that her welcome was over, but instead, Mr. Scheide delightedly recognized a kindred spirit, exclaiming “She smells books! She can stay as long as she likes.” The playfulness of their subsequent collaboration was also reflected in several of Mrs. Scheide’s anecdotes, including one about the time she walked in on Ms. D’Schommer standing on a 15th century monastic table photographing a book. “She wanted to get a straight-down view,” explained Mrs. Scheide.

“I think that what really hit me after years of doing this was Bill’s real sense of curiosity,” said Ms. D’Schommer. “Between the illuminations and the collections as a whole, you sense him just being curious about the world.” She said that bringing her camera into a library seemed “incredibly unscholarly” at first. “I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible.” Using 35 mm film, she described making the most of the room’s natural light. Ultimately, she observed, it was a life-altering experience.

Asked what she would concentrate on if she had a second opportunity to photograph more of the collection, Ms. D’Schommer said “Americana.” Mr. Scheide’s Americana holdings, which include a first printing of the Declaration of Independence and a manuscript of a speech written by Abraham Lincoln before he became president, were highlighted in a ten-minute excerpt of a video about Mr. Scheide made by New Jersey Network, and shown at the library’s Biblio event on Saturday.

Available at Labyrinth Books, the Princeton Public Library Store, the Museum Shop at Princeton University, and at, Biblio includes photographs of the earliest editions of the Bible, first editions of Shakespeare, Galileo, Copernicus, and rare illustrated editions of Ptolemy. Also seen through photographs for the first time are musical scores by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.

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