Bill Scheide’s Extraordinary Gift

Gutenberg Bible

The 1455 Gutenberg Bible (photo: Natasha D’Schommer, courtesy of Princeton University)

When Princeton, N.J., philanthropist Bill Scheide (SHY-dee) died last year at age 100, he left his alma mater (Princeton ’36) a gift that would make any lover of books and music brim with joy. His collection of approximately 2,500 rare printed books and manuscripts, when it is appraised, is expected to be worth nearly $300 million, making it the largest gift in the University’s history.

Scheide majored in history at Princeton and earned his master’s degree in music at Columbia University in 1940. His father and grandfather had been oil company executives, but the younger Scheide’s career took a different turn. He founded the Bach Aria Group, which made its Carnegie Hall debut in 1948, and, although Scheide retired from its leadership in 1980, the group continues to perform as one of the nation’s longest active chamber ensembles and the only one devoted solely to the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. In the early 1950s, Scheide provided financial support to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the pivotal case of Brown v. Board of Education, which led to the desegregation of U.S. public schools. The University awarded Scheide an honorary doctorate of humanities in 1994, acknowledging his contributions as “advocate, scholar, student, benefactor, and friend.”

In 1959, the University’s Firestone Library established the Scheide Library to safeguard this collection of priceless works, making it available to scholars by appointment. Now it owns them.In its news release about the bequest, Princeton officials included these highlights of the collection:

  • Copies of the first six printed editions of the Bible, starting with the 1455 Gutenberg Bible
  • The original printing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence
  • Beethoven’s only handwritten music “sketchbook” outside Europe
  • Shakespeare’s first, second, third, and fourth Folios
  • A handwritten speech by Abraham Lincoln on the issue of slavery and
  • Music manuscripts of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Wagner.
Quran, illuminated book

An ornate Quran, c. 1700 (photo: Natasha D’Schommer, courtesy of Princeton University)

The availability of these works, amassed by three generations of the Scheide family, will be a treasure trove for historians, bibliophiles, musicologists, and literary scholars. Librarian Karin Trainer said, “There are discoveries to be made in every document and volume in the (Scheide) library.” And, historian Anthony Grafton said, “At its core, the Scheide Library is the richest collection anywhere of the first documents printed in 15th-century Europe.”

The University has been digitizing various works in the Scheide collection, including the Gutenberg Bible, Trainer said, and they are available through the University’s digital library website.