During years of foreign study and travel, John Davis Batchelder (1872-1958) collected books, manuscripts, prints, and ephemera that he felt illustrated the history of Western culture (and in a few cases, non-Western cultures). Although he began making gifts as early as 1922, he donated the lion's share of his collection to the Library in 1936, and it is housed for the most part in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. The 1,499 volumes include children’s books, early American publications, incunabula, and such significant literary works as an early edition of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1599) and the First Folio edition of his plays (1623). He acquired many book and non-book items because of their primacy, including many first editions, or because of their connection with famous people. Four other divisions also have custody of significant portions of the Batchelder gift: the Manuscript Division, the Music Division, the Prints and Photographs Division, and the Asian Division.
John Davis Batchelder was born in Faribault, Minnesota, the son of prominent local attorney George Washington Batchelder and his wife Kate (née Davis). After graduating from Shattuck Military Academy, he attended the University of Vermont, from which he graduated in 1895. He received an A.M from Johns Hopkins, and then attended the Sorbonne in Paris, the University of Berlin, and Oxford University. Returning to the U.S., he taught at the Shattuck School in Faribault, the University of Iowa, and Case Western Reserve University until about 1911. After that date, he appears to have set about collecting the books, manuscripts, and other objects that he would later donate to the Library of Congress.
He seems to have kept a low profile in the collecting scene, which may have allowed him to purchase some bargains, but in at least one case he appears to have fudged the provenance of one of his most noted books: The First Folio of William Shakespeare’s plays published in 1623. Batchelder claimed that his copy was that of the Viscount Cholmondeley and that he purchased it from a dealer named H.G. Wells in New York in 1919 (possibly attempting to associate the seller with Gabriel Wells, who sold many First Folios during his career). But later analysis shows that Batchelder appears to have purchased two partial First Folios in the early 1920s and surreptitiously combined them; it is even likely that Batchelder added a bookplate of the Viscount Cholmondeley to back up his story. (Cf. Rasmussen and West, The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue, London: Palgrave, 2012).
Regardless of this discrepancy, John Davis Batchelder did not appear to collect (or overstate provenance) for monetary gain, and his gift to the Library of Congress in 1938 was significant because of its highpoints in subjects ranging from Incunabula, Early Americana, to Charles Dickens, music, and many others.
The unique materials of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, now totaling over 1 million items, include books, broadsides, pamphlets, theater playbills, prints, posters, photographs, and medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. At the center is Thomas Jefferson's book collection, which was sold to Congress in 1815. The Rare Book & Special Collections Reading Room is modeled after Philadelphia's Independence Hall. This room is home to the divisional catalogs, reference collection, and reference staff. Collections are stored in temperature and humidity controlled vaults.