Posner Memorial Collection

The Posner Memorial Collectioncomprises approximately 1,000 books, includingmajor works documenting the history of astronomy, mathematics, mechanics, natural philosophy, and technology. These include first editions of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica (London, 1687),Ibn al-Haytham’s (Alhazen) Opticae Thesaurus (Basel, 1572), Galileo Galilei’s report and analysis onthe discovery of sunspots (Rome, 1613), Andreas Vesalius’ pathbreaking work on human anatomy, De Humani Corporis FabricaLibriSeptem (Basel, 1543), and Nicolaus Copernicus’s treatise on heliocentrism, De revolutionibusorbiumcoelestium (Nuremberg, 1543). The collection also contains one of only five known copies of the first official printing of the American Bill of Rights and copies of Shakespeare’s Second (1632), Third (1663), and Fourth (1685) Folios. The collection was expertly assembled over several decades by Pittsburgh entrepreneur and philanthropist Henry Posner Senior and was deposited with the University Libraries by Posner’s family in 1976. The Posner Memorial Collection is held in the Posner Center and is open for research by appointment.  


Born in Warsaw, Poland, Henry Posner Senior emigrated to the United States, arriving in Boston about 1905. He worked successively as a dock worker in Boston, census taker and teacher in Baltimore and as a surveyor for the Western Maryland Railway. In 1912 he attended Carnegie Tech but left before graduation to start his own business on Spahr Street in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh. That business, the Alpha Claude Neon Corporation, in 1927 became the first licensee of the George A. Claude patents for the low-pressure gas discharge lamp which developed into the neon sign industry. By 1932, Alpha Claude Neon had become the Pittsburgh Outdoor Advertising Company, which Mr. Posner owned and managed until his retirement in 1964. 

Mr. Posner exercised the same skill, research and attention to detail in his book collecting as he did in his business. During 50 years of collecting, between 1924 and 1973, Mr. Posner maintained detailed records of his purchases, correspondence with dealers, and research notes about items he was considering for his collection. These collector’s files were scanned along with the books that form the Posner Memorial Collection and can be viewed with their associated titles here. Posner’s correspondence, in particular, reveals his characteristics as a collector: his methodology, his perseverance and patience, and his pleasure and enjoyment in his collection.  

Many of Posner’s notes indicate titles to be acquired or reference citations to be checked. Mrs. Posner once remarked to Anne Skoog, the Carnegie Mellon Fine and Rare Book Librarian when the collection came to the library, that she enjoyed social occasions, but that her husband Henry would "just as soon spend the evening with his books." Mr. Posner knew how to buy books and how to examine the fine editions that he was purchasing; he had learned about collations, bindings, provenance, extra-illustrations, added engravings, worm-holes and other characteristics that affect the quality and rarity of books. Much of this knowledge had been obtained from book dealers. In a letter to Mr. Jacob Zeitlin, a well-known dealer in California, Mr. Posner wrote: 

     "As a rule, there are always exceptions, book collectors don't always know all they should about the books they are collecting. And I sometimes think librarians are so busy supervising, cataloging and studying special subjects, that they are not as knowledgeable as one would expect them to be. The rare book dealers - that's a different story. They know."(March 11, 1971) 


Despite his reservations about librarians, Mr. Posner wrote boldly to major libraries for assistance in verification and collation and he received lengthy and helpful replies from many.Mr. Posner was consistent in acquiring books that were flawless, or close to it, for his collection. He demanded perfection from his dealers in any items they quoted to him. In a letter to Lawrence Gomme, he wrote: 


     "I generally know what I am after and will not buy anything except what I want, and in first class condition at that."(April 17, 1951) 

He respected his book dealers but he demanded much from them in service, attention to detail, and expertise. He even expected a discount. Posner arranged for a standing discount with some major dealers and is still remembered in the trade for this. Mr. Posner was able to arrange a 10 percent discount with H.P. Kraus in 1955, with H. Marley of Dawson's, and F. Thomas Heller. Sometimes, for a significant title, a book dealer would hold out, claiming a very small profit margin, and Posner would want the book enough to acquiesce. Jacob Zeitlin won one of these exchanges over Posner’s first edition of Ptolemy’sAlmagest(Basel, 1538). Many letters written in response to Posner’s inquiries make plain the book dealers exasperation with this determined, bibliophilic businessman, who had to be kept satisfied since he regularly made significant purchases. 

Mr. Posner understood that he needed patience and optimism to collect the best copies of the titles that he wanted to add to his collection. He was most proud of his copy of the Almagestand its illustrious provenance. In a letter to a doctor at the Mayo Clinic, he wrote: 


     "… For some reason, Darwin items are apparently very scare. However, in this book-collecting game one has to be very, very patient. Eventually, they all show up. It took me twenty-seven years to acquire Ptolemy's 'Almagest.'… After being in the collection of Marcus Laurinus, the Mathematical Society, The Royal Astronomical Society, and the Bibliotheca Colbertina of the famous Prime Minister to Louis XIV of France, it finally landed in the Library of the Family of Henry Posner …"(January 9, 1974) 

Mr. Posner's copy of the Almagest was purchased from Jacob Zeitlin of Zeitlin and Ver Brugge in Los Angeles in January of 1972 and was the last major title acquired for his collection before his death in 1976. Zeitlin and Ver Brugge sent the Ptolemy title to Mr. Posner on approval. Mr. Posner asked for a discount, but Zeitlin was able to command full price since he had a firm order for the book from the Bibliothèque Royale in Brussels. Mr. Posner replied on January 13, 1972: "since I want the book, I enclose my check."   

Mr. Posner died on Thanksgiving Day, 1976. The Posner Memorial Collection was formally deposited in the Fine and Rare Book Room of Hunt Library by his son, Henry Posner Jr. and his wife Helen on January 28, 1978. 

The collection was installed in the Posner Center, a gift of Henry and Helen Posner Jr. in memory of his parents, in May 2004. The facility is located on the Carnegie Mellon campus between the College of Fine Arts and the Tepper School of Business, facing Margaret Morrison Carnegie Hall and the tennis courts. Mr. and Mrs. Posner Jr. also provided funds to support digitization of the collection, which was completed in 2005. The Posner Fine Arts Foundation, directed by Anne Molloy, further supports use of the collection by funding internships and research fellowships for Carnegie Mellon students and early career scholars, who propose research and other projects in the collection. 

By placing the collection at Carnegie Mellon where it can be properly housed and cared for, the Posner family has provided the Pittsburgh community with the opportunity to share, enjoy and learn from these wonderful books. Moreover, the Posner family's love of learning, and appreciation of finely crafted books as objects of art, will benefit future generations of students.  


Accessing the Collection

The Posner Memorial Collection is held by Carnegie Mellon University Special Collections. Please contact Special Collections to schedule an appointment.

Related Materials

Researchers may also be interested in the Posner Collector's Files.


All items in this collection are in the public domain. Additional volumes still subject to copyright laws are available for in person use.

Use of Images

Images of materials in the Posner Collection have no known copyright restrictions and may be used freely for non-commercial purposes. A source attribution and citation must accompany all images, preferably in the following format:

Image courtesy of the Posner Memorial Collection, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries, Special Collections [Call no. of item].