Robert F. Metzdorf and the Robert F. Metzdorf Award

Since 1993, the Friends of the University of Rochester Libraries have given the Robert F. Metzdorf Award to those who distinguished themselves with "contributions and meritorious service to the libraries." The award is named for one of the University's most respected scholars, Robert F. Metzdorf, a nationally known bibliographer and appraiser of rare books and manuscripts. For many alumni and library patrons, the mention of Bob Metzdorf's name evokes fond memories. But for many who have come and gone since Mr. Metzdorf left the University in 1952, his many accomplishments may not be all that familiar.

Who was Bob Metzdorf? Librarian, bibliographer, curator, archivist, and literary property manager is the quick list. But there is more, much more. Robert Frederic Metzdorf was born on July 2, 1912 in Springfield, Mass., the son of August and Alvina Metzdorf. He attended the University of Rochester, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1933. He received his M.A. in 1935, and, in 1939, was awarded the University's first Ph.D. in English.

In 1933, he joined the staff of Rush Rhees Library as assistant to the librarian. He later served as assistant curator and curator of the R.B. Adam Collection of Johnsonian Literature from 1937 to 1948. The Adam Collection, valued in 1936 at about $1 million, was on loan to the University by its owner, R.B. Adam of Buffalo, president of the mercantile firm Adam, Meldrum and Anderson. The Adam collection contained original manuscripts, several hundred letters in Johnson's handwriting, autographs, first editions, and unusual works of Johnson and his illustrious contemporaries.

From 1948 to 1949, Metzdorf was curator of the Department of Rare Books. He was an assistant and instructor in the Department of English from 1939 to 1949. He also served as University bellman from 1942 to 1949, succeeding Professor John R. Slater.

Mr. Metzdorf was a founding member of the Friends of the University of Rochester Libraries and served on the Friends' Executive Committee. He was also on the University's Board of Trustees and was the chairman of the Board's Library Visiting Committee.

A livelier description of Metzdorf is in a Campus Times feature written by Ray Rueby in 1947. The writer ponders how Metzdorf found the time to play the Hopeman Memorial chimes:

Paradoxically enough, after noting the numerous campus and international organizations to which the popular Dr. belongs, you wonder how he does maintain such a schedule. However, again suppressing a smile, he explains it like this: "Half my time is spent in teaching for the English Department, half for work here in the Treasure Room, and half as dormitory advisor!" So there you have it: not to mention participation in several societies of biographers and bookplate collectors both here and abroad, plus active membership in the Grolier Club and The Johnson Society of London.


Not to be overlooked is the Phi Beta Kappa Key that Dr. Metzdorf modestly carries, or his position as Director of the Theta Chi Alumni Corporation. But, true to the quiet, unassuming manner that has won him so many friends here at the U of R, he says, "I guess I'm just a joiner at heart-sort of an academic-Rotarian.

Seated in the cordial luxuriousness of his office in the Treasure Room, Dr. Metzdorf had this to say about the valuable books and documents that are kept in the vault in the room:

The touchstone that decides whether or not a volume is admitted to this room, or to the vault is not so much its money value, but how long it would take us to replace it. Lately, we have been building up a collection of scientific works as well as works of literature. One way to bring the humanities closer together is to humanize the workers of science, as well as literature, by having original documents available here. It makes these great men of the past really seem alive.

In relating some of his experiences at Rochester since he first came here as a freshman in 1929, Dr. Metzdorf tells about actually living for a year in the Rush Rhees Building when it was necessary to make room for the Navy during the war:

My bedroom was fixed up in one of the graduate study rooms; in fact, I claim the distinction of having slept in more buildings on Campus than any other man-and not in classes either.

A 1942 article in the Democrat and Chronicle described Metzdorf's passion for the works of William Makepeace Thackeray. He, at that time, had more than 500 books, many first editions of Thackeray's work. The article stated that he sought "copies of each edition published during Thackeray's lifetime, as well as the later illustrated editions, in addition to the biographies which have been published [about Thackeray].

 In 1952, Metzdorf left the University of Rochester for Yale University, where he became the curator of manuscripts and later Yale University archivist, a position he held until 1961. In 1961, he became vice president in charge of literary rights at Parke-Bernet Galleries, a major auction house in New York City.

Upon Metzdorf's death in 1975, University president Robert L. Sproull stated, "The University benefited greatly from his expert counsel. Those who knew Bob will remember not only his achievements and his ever-present sense of humor, but also his constant concern for the well-being and progress of the University."

The University of Rochester Library Bulletin (vol. XXIX, number 1, Autumn 1975) devoted several pages to memorializing Metzdorf.  Mercer Brugler '25, Chairman Emeritus of the Board of Trustees, wrote:

In 1967 Bob joined the University's board of trustees as an alumni-elected trustee. He was most enthusiastic about returning to the campus and renewing friendships. With the establishment of the Trustees' Library Visiting Committee, Bob was appointed chairman, a post which he held until his death. Although his major service as a trustee was in connection with the library, he had a constructive interest in everything that went on at the University: academic development, financial matters, relations with the faculty, the accomplishments of students. His background at Rochester, his fund of current information about other universities, and his humanistic outlook made him especially valuable as a member of our board of trustees.

A generous donor of rare books and manuscripts, he was of the greatest help in persuading other collectors to give to our library. He was the key figure in the founding of the Friends of the University of Rochester Libraries.

Ben C. Bowman, Director of Libraries, paid his homage:

In the libraries of this University, among those who work in and use them, Bob Metzdorf was a recognized, respected and warm friend. There was a freshness and pleasure in his visits and always something more to learn about books and manuscripts, for his bibliographical and technical knowledge of them was uncommonly extensive. His sense of their many and sustaining values was sure, as were his taste and regard for quality. And his faith in libraries and the purposes they serve was unassailable.

More than generous with his time and counsel, Bob was a constant advocate of libraries-a partisan, if you will, insistent and not always easy to respond to. Quality in them, he believed, is central to learning and research in the University.

I am not the only librarian to believe, and I suspect most bookmen would agree, that with his bibliographical skill, taste, and sense of value; with his generosity, good counsel, and staunch advocacy, Bob Metzdorf elevated the work of enriching library collections from an art to a grace.

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Librarian Emeritus Herman W. Liebert wrote:

When Samuel Johnson died in 1784, one of his friends mourned the gap created by his passing with the words, 'No man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson.' Equally, there is no one quite like Bob Metzdorf, my dear friend for 30 years.

Introducing him to the Fellow of Davenport College at Yale in 1953, I said of him that there was nothing of the monk about him except the tonsure. In one sense, that was true: he was the most gregarious of men, fond of good food and drink, and more especially the social happiness that accompanied them. He had a host of friends, and gave himself unreservedly to his friendships with them. A company that included him was bound to be one of convivial hilarity enlightened by his warmth and wit. The gaiety of many will be eclipsed by his absence.

And yet, in a deeper sense, he was something of a monk, not as ascetic, but as one who recognized a kind of divinity in books and manuscripts and dedicated his life, with almost ferocious intensity, to their study, description, and greater understanding. His publications on the autograph collections here, for example, and on the library of Chauncey Tinker, are models of the most painstaking and indefatigable labor. To the editions of Boswell and Johnson, to the Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, which he edited, and to his appraisals, he devoted precision and learning far beyond the usual. It was a kind of holy passion with him, and the fruits of his work, somewhat like that of a scribe in a medieval monastery, will always be valuable.

I am sure that his German ancestry was one source of his diligence. He was stubborn, laudably so in pursuit of facts, but sometimes exasperating in the firmness with which he clung to his convictions. Never was there any doubt of the faith with which he adhered to his principles as he saw them. In a time when principles seem out of fashion, he was a paradigm.

For one usually so jovial, he was in many ways also a resolute Victorian, evidenced by his interest in that queen and her age. He was house-proud, and justifiably, for he always surrounded himself with possessions of all sorts that manifested his unerring taste. The many and distinctly different collections he assembled are another enduring achievement.

I knew him best, of course, in his career at Yale and in the book world generally. At Yale, and earlier at Harvard, he was a very effective contributor to the educational task: he won the affections of many students, and used that relationship to widen their intellects and fortify their characters. These indeed were his children, and he is blessed in his progeny.

Among librarians, collectors, and the book trade he was held in the highest regard. If we were sometimes uncomfortable in the face of his exacting standards, we always respected his impatience with hypocrisy or compromise. Another great man, Chauncey Tinker, did not welcome dissent, and did not suffer fools or even some men of wisdom: he instantly recognized both Bob's probity and his warmth, and the tender attentions that Bob gave Tink in his last days are a Christian example.

Bob bore his own long and difficult illness with courage and difficulty. I can say, from outside this community, that the many ways in which this University and others in Rochester cared for Bob have earned the lasting gratitude of all his friends.

That care and Bob's brave struggle have not prevailed, illustrating again the vanity of human wishes. From Johnson's poem of that name, we may recall the closing lines:

    Still raise for good the supplicating voice,
    But leave to heav'n the measure and the choice,
    Pour forth they fervours for a healthful mind,
    Obedient passions, and a will resign'd;
    For love, which scarce collective man can fill;
    For patience, sov'reign o'er transmuted ill;
    For faith, that, panting for a happier seat,
    Counts death kind nature's signal of retreat;
    These goods for man the laws of heav'n ordain;
    These goods He grants, who grants the pow'r to gain;
    With these celestial wisdom calms the mind,
    And makes the happiness she does not find.

Let us, even in our sorrow, be confident that Bob has been granted the full measure of that happiness which he deserves. God bless and keep him and give him peace.

So devoted were his many friends that they banded together to establish a lectureship in Robert Metzdorf's name. Beginning in 1979, Friends of the University of Rochester Libraries hosted the Annual Metzdorf Lecture, which continued until 1992. In 1993, because of declining attendance, the Friends decided Bob Metzdorf's memory might be served with an award for "contributions and meritorious service to the Libraries."

Robert F. Metzdorf Award Recipients

Robert F. Metzdorf Lectures


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