Peter Martin VanWingen

April 29, 1948--
November 26, 1995

Terry Belanger's November 30, 1995, obituary
for Peter M. VanWingen

Peter Martin VanWingen, an only child, was born in 1948 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he attended public schools, working summers in a bakery owned by his mother's family. He was graduated from Hope College in nearby Holland, MI, in 1970.

In 1972, he received an M.Div degree from the New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey; but shortly after receiving this degree he decided to pursue a career in academic librarianship. He attended the Columbia University School of Library Service (SLS) in 1972-73 while working part-time in the university library. He received his master's in library science in 1973.

At Columbia, he developed an interest in rare book librarianship, and he was one of the original Printers of the Book Arts Press (BAP), a laboratory for the study of the history of books and printing. He met his future wife, Rachel Senner, at SLS, where she, too, was one of the original Printers of the BAP; they were married in 1974. In that year he co-authored (with John E. Peters) The Type Punches at Columbia University, an inventory of an uncataloged collection of type punches acquired by Columbia as part of the Library of the American Type Founders Company.

VanWingen's first professional jobs were at the New York Public Library, where he worked in the Rare Book Division and later in the General Reference Division of the Research Libraries. In 1975, James Mosley invited him to join the staff of the St Bride Printing Library in London, the English-speaking world's largest library devoted to the history of printing and its allied arts.

By 1977, the VanWingens' thoughts were again turning to the United States. In June of that year, VanWingen flew to Toronto to attend a rare book conference, but returned to London almost by the next plane when his first son, Matthew, was born. Not long after, VanWingen accepted the position of Head of the Reading Room in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress (LC). The VanWingens' second son, Jacob, was born in 1979.

VanWingen received several promotions at LC, and on division chief's J. William Matheson's retirement in 1987 he became acting chief of the rare book and special collections division, a position he held until 1990. In 1992, he was appointed the rare book division's Specialist for the Book Arts and Curator of the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection. He was involved with organizing and mounting a number of important exhibitions during this period, notably one on the Gehenna Press, which VanWingen saw through to successful completion despite the onset of the illness that would eventually result in his death. He was throughout his career at LC a very visible presence in the division's reading room, where he will long be fondly remembered by a large number of grateful readers.

In 1982, he and Stephen Paul Davis were co-authors of the LC publication, Standard Citation Forms for Published Bibliographies and Catalogs Used in Rare Book Cataloging; a second edition of this work was published in 1995.

In 1985, he and Alice Schreyer began to co-teach a course in the history of the book at Rare Book School, an annual summer institute then located at Columbia University. In the published 1990 evaluation of the course, one of their students noted: "This is the best library instruction I have ever received." The two co-taught their well-attended course annually through 1993. Between 1990 and 1992, VanWingen also taught courses in the history of the book as an adjunct professor at the library school of Catholic University.

He was elected to membership in the Grolier Club in 1986, and he was an active member in a number of professional organizations. Between 1982 and 1985 he was Secretary of the Bibliographical Society of America. He was chair of the Rare Books & Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries (a division of the American Library Association, ALA) in 1989-90, presiding over the Section's 1990 pre-conference, held in Minneapolis. He wrote a pamphlet intended for widespread general distribution, Your Old Books, and patiently shepherded its text through the Section's committee hierarchy to its successful publication by ALA in 1988; a second edition was published in 1994.

In 1992, he was elected President of the American Printing History Association, a position he was forced to give up early in 1993, when it was discovered that he had a cancerous brain tumor. Despite sometimes considerable side- and after-effects from repeated surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments, he gallantly continued to work at LC, usually full-time. In the summer of 1995, the growth spread to a point where it became untreatable. He became bed-ridden in the fall of 1995, and he died at home on Sunday, November 26th.

VanWingen was a member of the Hyattsville, Maryland, Mennonite Church, where there . . . [was] a memorial service on Saturday, December 16th, beginning at 4 pm. . . . The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, contributions in his memory may be made to the Peter VanWingen Fund, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20540.

Peter VanWingen was blessed with an unflappable calm and sunny disposition that made him an admirable friend and colleague. His temperament balanced intelligence and practicality with a well-developed sense of humor, and he was unfailingly kind. He was greatly esteemed within the rare book world.

He was quite possibly the best-liked American rare book librarian of his generation, as well as one of the most generous. His loss is a great one.

Terry Belanger : University Professor : University of Virginia
Book Arts Press : 114 Alderman Library : Charlottesville, VA 22903
Tel: 804/924-8851 : FAX : 804/924-8824 : email :

Here is the text of the (less informative) obituary notice for
Peter M. VanWingen
from The Washington Post (November 28, 1995)

Peter M. VanWingen, 47, curator of the Rosenwald Collection in the rare book and special collections division of the Library of Congress, died of a brain tumor Nov. 26 at his home in Washington.

Mr. VanWingen moved to Washington in 1977 to become head of the reference section of the library's rare book division. A specialist in book arts and printing history, he began his career as a librarian at the New York Public Library and later worked at the St. Bride Printing Library in London and as an adjunct professor at Catholic University.

He was a native of Grand Rapids, Mich. He was a graduate of Hope College in Michigan and received a master's degree in library science from Columbia University.

Mr. VanWingen was a member of Hyattsville Mennonite Church and a director of International Guest House in Washington.

Survivors include his wife of 21 years, Rachel Senner VanWingen, and two sons, Matthew VanWingen and Jacob VanWingen, all of Washington.

Two additional comments about Peter VanWingen follow

(1) From: Betty Bright (

Thank you, Michael Durgin, for sending along the news of Peter VanWingen's passing. I . . . was one of the many students that Belanger['s obituary notice] refers to, who sat in awestruck admiration in Peter and Alice Schreyer's History of the Book class at one of Terry Belanger's summer Rare Book Schools, when it was held at Columbia University. I also planned to stop and see Peter at the Library of Congress in Spring 1993. When I called, Peter told me it would be shortly after his return to work from his illness. I suggested that he might have a lot to do right then, but he insisted, and we had a delightful visit. One of Peter's many gifts was communicating his love for the book arts; he was a friend to the book artist within the Library of Congress. I wish I had known him better, but Terry Belanger conveys the breadth of Peter's accomplishments as well as his generous spirit, for us all.

(2) From: William S. Peterson (, University of Maryland, College Park

May I add my comments about Peter VanWingen to those of Betty Bright and Terry Belanger?

I first became aware of Peter's existence in the early eighties when I was editing a collection of William Morris's essays on typography and book illustration. I needed quite a bit of help in annotating the essays and locating suitable illustrations, and in the Rare Book reading room at the Library of Congress I stumbled upon Peter, who proved to be the ideal adviser. He was generous, friendly, and enormously knowledgeable.

We gradually struck up a very pleasant relationship. Occasionally we traveled to New York together on the train, we often bumped into each on the streets of Capitol Hill, and for many years we have had lunch together at regular (but, alas, too infrequent) intervals. I do not profess to be one of his close friends, but I certainly knew Peter well enough to report that he was one of the finest persons I have ever encountered. I was always deeply impressed by Peter's intelligence, his sense of humor, his integrity, and above all by his quiet religious and moral convictions.

I will miss Peter greatly, and I know that many others will too.

Alice D. Schreyer remembered Peter VanWingen skillfully, beautifully, and movingly at the Hyattsville, Maryland, memorial service, speaking both for herself and for the rare book and manuscript community. With thanks to Alice Schreyer for her permission to mount it--and, for assistance in transferring the text from Chicago to Philadelphia, special thanks also to Amie Wyrostek--here is

Alice Schreyer

Memorial Service Tribute to Peter VanWingen

December 16, 1995

I was fortunate to have Peter as a great friend and colleague for twenty years. It is a privilege to pay tribute to the very special place he held in my life and in our professional community, which is so well represented here today.

As many of you know, Peter loved to tell stories about the family bakery, and a tale he particularly relished involved egg whites. Apparently one day, the worker assigned to whip gallons of egg whites to stiffness was completely unable to get them going. It later turned out that another worker had greased the sides of the vat, an act of industrial sabotage that enraged Uncle Jack and cost the perpetrator his job.

Peter recounted this episode, as he did many others of his own work experiences, to teach students about the history of printing. He conveyed with graphic clarity the gritty, human dynamic of the early printing shop--the narrow margin on which printers struggled to stay in business (for that lost vat of egg whites represented a real cost to Uncle Jack), and, for the workers, the long days of grueling labor that led to mischief and even outright rebellion. For Peter was a printer, too, and his understanding of the technical and mechanical aspects of printing was, like everything else about him, direct and practical, born of first-hand experience and not merely book learning. Of course he had that too, and he took great pleasure in the arcane lore of printing chappels and other trade secrets.

From Peter I learned always to look for the mark of the printer, to see fine books as the product of a human mind, spirit, and hand working together to create something of beauty and significance. To Peter, the real heroes and heroines of printing were those whose work celebrated the dignity of labor. Perhaps no one epitomized this better for him than Victor Hammer, the Viennese artist and printer, sculptor, goldsmith, printer, calligrapher and carpenter. Hammer's career as an artist-craftsman, and above all his spiritual, even mystical qualities, greatly appealed to Peter. Peter showed his admiration for the work of contemporary fine printers Claire Van Vliet and Leonard Baskin in major Library of Congress exhibitions. He also marveled at the courage and endurance of printers caught up in political controversy or religious oppression. He loved to tell students about Isaiah Thomas, the American revolutionary printer who moved his press in the dead of night from Boston to Worcester, Massachussetts, and to read the terms of Thomas's indenture at the tender age of seven, when he swore off drunkenness and carnal knowledge for the duration of his apprenticeship.

Many of my memories of Peter center in the classroom, where we spent intense and rewarding hours together, earning from our students appellations such as "the anchor team" and "Ma and Pa Kettle." The grace and sweet humor that Peter brought to all his activities were especially welcome in the frantic pace of a Rare Book School week, and his quiet calm was a perfect balance to my more highly strung tendencies. When Rare Book School was still located on the campus of Columbia University, we took field trips to visit New York library collections and booksellers. Peter recognized that for many students, this excursion would be their first New York City subway ride; and in his kind and reassuring way, he took particular care in giving instructions for all of us to meet and travel together. One year, despite all of our efforts to protect our flock, a student was pickpocketed during the return trip on a crowded rush hour train, and the experience was so upsetting that she instantly disappeared and never returned. Ruefully but also wryly, Peter greeted the class the next morning with the reminder that they were now all official New Yorkers.

The rare book world is a specialized one, and to some outside our close-knit family it appears both precious and elitist. Peter was our cherished ambassador, translator, interpreter, demystifying the complex operations of a Monotype caster and articulating the profound cultural signficance of the 1501 Aldine Virgil, the first pocket-sized printed book. He traveled with ease across the subtle but real boundaries of the rare book world's subcultures, winning the admiration and high regard of professional librarians, collectors, members of the book trade, researchers and scholars, designers, fine printers and avocational printers.

At work, Peter took equal joy in giving tours of the Library of Congress's Rare Book Division to visiting dignitaries and schoolchildren and sharing in a breakthrough discovery made by a scholar using the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection. We shared a love for our work, but from Peter I learned to focus on what was truly important and put the rest in perspective. The books and the people he came into contact with were a source of deep satisfaction to him, far transcending any bureaucratic frustrations. He managed these with serenity, picking up the reins of administration when he was called upon to do so, pulling together the 100 essays on 100 books by as many contributors for the Rosenwald centennial volume and curating the accompanying exhibition, returning with joy to the close relationship to books and readers of his final assignment as Specialist for the Book Arts and Curator of the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection.

One phenomenon in printing history that fascinated Peter was that a technology seemed to achieve its highest level of perfection at the precise moment that it was about to be eclipsed. He often mused, for example, on the fate of the hand type compositors who had, by the late nineteenth century, pushed the number of "ems" set per minute to an amazing high, just before the Monotype and Linotype machines put them out of business.

Many of us here today feel that he, too, came closest to the perfection he sought during the difficult times of the last few years. His courage, faith, and quiet determination were a source of awe and inspiration, but those of us who knew him well were not surprised. He had a job to do in exerting his will to fight his illness, and no one could do it better. His pride in his family, his joy in watching Matthew and Jacob grow into fine young men and Rachel flourish in her work, had always been at the core of everything he did. His life and his work were one; and he always took care to identify Matthew Daye, the son of Stephen Daye, as the first "real" printer in the colonies, and the son of Victor Hammer, Jacob, who was a printer alongside his father. Victor Hammer said that "the life of a man should not be considered as a thing outside his work. Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam." Peter's life was, like the important and finely printed books he revered, a work of art, spirit, and craft, dedicated to service and high ideals. Like these volumes, he leaves an enduring legacy that continues to exert a powerful influence on the lives of all of who knew him.

This is the link to Your Old Books, a text that Peter VanWingen originated and wrote. It is now mounted on the Home Page of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section, Association of College and Research Libraries, ALA, of which Peter VanWingen was Chair.

This is the link to Daniel Traister's Home Page, where this memorial page for Peter VanWingen resides.

You can send Traister e-mail concerning this page at

Return to Daniel Traister's Home Page.