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William A. Speck papers

Call Number: YCGL MSS 20

Scope and Contents

The William A. Speck Papers document the founding of the Speck Collection and Speck's activities as a Goethe collector and interpreter, both before he came to Yale and during his tenure as curator at the University Library. The collections consists of card files, personal and family papers, correspondence, and notes and drafts for articles and lectures.


  • 1848 - 1951


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The William A. Speck Papers is the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The William A. Speck Papers consist of material brought to Yale by Speck and generated by him while he was curator of the Speck Collection. The papers were left in the library when Speck died, except for a small section of personal papers purchased from a descendant in 1960.


The collections is organized into four series: I. Card Files, circa 1914-1927. II. Personal and Family Papers, 1848-1951. III. Correspondence, circa 1893-1928. IV. Notes and Drafts for Articles and Lectures, circa 1870-1927.


9 Linear Feet (24 boxes)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


Collection consists of correspondence, notes and drafts, card files, personal and family papers, documenting the founding of the Speck Collection and William A. Speck's activity as a Goethe collector and interpreter.

WILLIAM A. SPECK (1864-1928)

William Alfred Speck, the founder of the William A. Speck Collection of Goetheana, was born in New York City to German immigrants, Otto Speck, a pharmacist, and Natalie Adolphine Haase. He was married twice, to Lillie Day Robinson in 1893 (she died three years later) and to Sara Rennie Speck, the widow of his brother Oscar. His professional training was at the Pharmaceutical College in New York City, and from 1883 until 1912 he worked in the family drug store in Haverstraw, New York. All the while, he was amassing a major Goethe library, and in 1913 he accepted Yale's invitation to come to the university and deposit his collection in the library. He acted as its curator from 1913 until his death in 1928 and as lecturer in the Yale Graduate School beginning in 1916.

A more detailed biography of Speck may be found in the National Cyclopedia of American Biography (vol. 29) and in Goethe's Works with the Exception of Faust: A Catalogue. Edited by Carl F.Schreiber (New Haven, 1940), p. 21-42. Schreiber's account of Speck's early years is based on a text written by Sara R. Speck and preserved among the Speck Collection manuscripts (YCGL MSS 6, folder 657).

History of the William A. Speck Collection of Goetheana

Yale acquired the Speck Collection in 1913 through a set of fortuitous coincidences. Speck's niece, Charlotte Keeney, belonged to the Vassar College Class of 1912. Perhaps at her uncle's suggestion, she took several Goethe courses in college, at least one of them taught by Marian Parker Whitney, a daughter of Yale's distinguished Sanskrit scholar William Dwight Whitney. In February 1912, Charlotte Keeney arranged for Ms. Whitney and a group of Vassar students to visit Uncle Will's Goethe collection, already numbering some 6,000 items, at his home in Haverstraw, New York. Recognizing the importance of the collection and perhaps encouraged by her father (who had studied in Germany and taught German at Yale), Marian Whitney suggested to the Yale University Librarian John Christopher Schwab (Class of 1886 and grandson of the German writer Gustav Schwab) that he might visit the remarkable collection on the Hudson. The German literary scholar Julius Petersen, visiting professor at Yale during the year 1912/13, also saw the collection and arranged for part of it to be exhibited at the University. Hanns Oertel, another native German and dean of the Yale Graduate School, lent his support to the project, as did Alfred Lawrence Ripley, Yale Class of 1878, who had taught German at Yale before becoming a banker and Fellow of the Yale Corporation. Within a year, Yale had negotiated the acquisition of the Speck Collection, bringing William Speck to New Haven as its first curator. These events are documented in the correspondence files of Marian Whitney, John Christopher Schwab, Julius Peterson, Hanns Oertel, Anson Phelps Stokes, and the material filed under Yale University, Office of the Secretary, which includes the drafts of the original contract between Speck and Yale.

Processing Information

The correspondence series was preliminarily processed by Christa Sammons in the 1970s or 1980s. The rest of the collection was preliminary processed and described by Christa Sammons in 2007.

Guide to the William A. Speck Papers
Under Revision
by Christa Sammons
September 2007
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Repository

P. O. Box 208330
New Haven CT 06520-8330 US
(203) 432-2977


121 Wall Street
New Haven, CT 06511

Opening Hours

Access Information

The Beinecke Library is open to all Yale University students and faculty, and visiting researchers whose work requires use of its special collections. You will need to bring appropriate photo ID the first time you register. Beinecke is a non-circulating, closed stack library. Paging is done by library staff during business hours. You can request collection material online at least two business days in advance of your visit, using the request links in Archives at Yale. For more information, please see Planning Your Research Visit and consult the Reading Room Policies prior to visiting the library.