A Life in Books

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August 10, 2018

By Corinne Mona, Library Assistant

Some books live their whole lives with only one owner.  Many books, however, have at least two, if not many owners, and often physically bear the evidence of the hands they have passed though.  As a public school kid here in Maryland, I was issued previously-used textbooks every year by my teachers in nearly every subject.  Whatever condition the book was in, I was its sacred steward for the year.  Part of my homework in the first week of school was always to construct paper grocery bag covers for the books to help keep them in reasonable condition throughout a year of banging in and out of lockers, being thrown into my backpack and slung onto desks, getting tangled in my blankets as I attempted to do homework and ultimately fell asleep with my textbook companion at my side…

 Paper bag textbook cover


We were strictly forbidden from writing in the books.  I never did, but I often found evidence of previous owners through answered questions in workbooks (both correct and incorrect), soda stains, creased pages, and other offences.  I always hoped for a clean book and I never imagined hoping for a book with markings.

As a library professional working with special collections and donations from physicists, historians, and physicist historians, I now spend a good part of my day combing through hundreds of books in search of those special markings that I once hoped to avoid.  Inscriptions, book plates, plane tickets, post-it notes, receipts, business cards, library stamps, napkins, pages of equations, requests for book reviews, and marginalia  - notes in the margins – I’ve found all of them in various books that we’ve received from donors here at the Niels Bohr Library, and they all give interesting clues about the provenance – previous owners of the book – and about the personality and activities of the book owner.  The scope of the book collections and the types of books collected also are major indicators of the habits, talents, and interests of the previous book owner.

Since December 2017, I’ve been steadily probing my way through a rather special donation: the complete physics library of theoretical physicist-turned-historian Dr. Silvan (Sam) Schweber (1928-2017).  The forty-plus boxes of books contain a treasure trove of clues that have a direct connection to his rich life and tell part of his story, and with it, part of the history of science.  His oral history and his obituary are vital aids in putting the clues of the books together into the narrative of Sam Schweber’s fascinating life (see references at bottom).  It is easy to develop a feeling of kinship with a person when you spend many hours sifting through their personal book collection; therefore, I will take the liberty of addressing this book collection’s owner by his given name, Sam, throughout the rest of this post.

Here are some interesting things I found while working with Sam’s books:

1.  In every box of books, I found books of many languages, mostly German but also French and others.  I also found multi-lingual markings in the books.  The possible connection: Sam was born in 1928 to a German-Jewish family in Strasbourg, France, and consequently grew up speaking three languages languages: German to his German mother, Yiddish to his Polish father, formal French in school, and the Alsatian dialect of French when he was out and about in town.

Here is a page of Quanten und Felder by H.P. Durr from Sam’s collection:

                                                                                            page from Quanten und Felder


2.  Many of the books are from physics libraries in the US.  Why might that be?  In 1939, while Sam and his sister and mother were on vacation in Savoie, his father went to the World Exhibition in New York, hoping to plan for his family’s eventual immigration to the US.  Unfortunately, World War II broke out. Sam and his mother and sister had to flee the country and his father could not return to France as originally planned.  He stayed in Brooklyn with a friend, trying to find work and get legal residency, while Sam and the rest of this family traveled to Cuba by way of Spain while they waited for Sam’s father to get affairs in order in New York.  After six months in Havana, the Schweber family was reunited and settled in the Bronx.  Sam made the US his home for the rest of this life.

 Discarded by Harvard College Observatory Library stamp

Physics library stamp

3.  As I go through the collection, I’m finding multiple copies of lectures of the Brandeis University Summer Institute in Theoretical Physics from every year of its existence, from 1957-1972.  Why might he have had so many copies?  I found the answer in his obituary.  He became a professor at Brandeis in 1955.  In 1957, Brandeis began offering a graduate program in physics.  Sam became involved in building up the department and the Summer Institute was his initiative: an opportunity to bring leading physicists to the campus, along with selected postdocs and graduate students.

Brandeis summer lectures books


4.  Many of the books have Bethe or Hans Bethe written inside the cover.  I’m speculating that Sam was gifted them from Hans Bethe himself.  Sam got the opportunity to work as a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell under Nobel-prizewinning German-American nuclear physicist Dr. Hans Bethe.  They developed a fruitful professional relationship.  They co-authored several books together with a third physicist.  In the foreword to Sam’s An Introduction to Relativistic Quantum Field Theory, Bethe praised Sam: “It is always astonishing to see one’s children grow up, and to find that they can do things which their parents no longer fully understand.”

This signature is also in Quanten und Felder:

 Bethe signature

5.  Some books are in Russian and/or printed in the USSR.  We know that Sam’s long career spanned over the time period of the Cold War.  The USSR was a major player in the world of physics during that time (Russia still is today), and Soviet government put major emphasis on both nuclear physics and astronomy.  This is reflected in the output of physics texts from this area of the world in the mid to late 20th century, and we might expect to see a representation of texts from the USSR from any physicist with international leanings working in this era.

 Printed in USSR stamp

6.  Speaking of Russian books, I also found Mesons and Fields by Sam Schweber, Hans Bethe, and Frederic de Hoffman, translated into Russian in 1957:

Mesons and Fields Russian translation


7.  Also relevant to the time period of Sam’s career are references to the “war” (meaning World War II) in the publication information for the books.  For example, found in one of the textbooks:

The quality of the materials used in the manufacture of this book is governed by continued postwar shortages.


8.  I have also come across many thoughtful inscriptions in the covers of the books of Sam’s collection, as well as loose papers with requests to review books from the publisher.  We can’t always be certain that Sam was the only owner of these books and therefore are not always certain that the inscriptions were meant for him, but some of them say “to Sam” and the number of them leads me to suspect that he received many books from well-wishers and colleagues.  The requests to review books are addressed to Sam, so we know that his opinion as a reviewer was a sought-after commodity.

“In token of deep friendship” 

 In token of deep friendship

To Sam with great affection and admiration. (signature) P.S. – “It is better to be a big frog in a small pond than vice-versa” – voilà the evidence.

To Sam with great affection

“Pour Sam Schweber, en témoignage d’admiration. – Olivier” From Olivier Darrigol’s Electrodynamics from Ampere to Einstein (translation: For Sam Schweber, in testimony of my admiration.)

Pour Sam Schweber

Here is a letter I found with instructions for writing a requested book review:

Request for review letter

At this point, at well over half-way through processing the collection, I have really enjoyed finding all of these different clues in the books, researching Sam’s life, and speculating about how they fit together.  It is certainly a less exact science than physics, though arguably just as delightful.

Here is the man himself, conversing with former Niels Bohr Library librarian Joan Warnow-Blewett in our previous location in New York. (Photo from the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives)

Sam Schweber and Joan Warnow-Blewett conversing in a library


For further reading about books as historical documents and an interesting debate, check out this article from the University of Vienna library in their dealing with books from their collection that bear traces of the Nazi regime:




Oral history interview transcript with Sam Schweber, available from the Niels Bohr Library and Archives - https://www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/31884

Obituary from Brandeis University - http://blogs.brandeis.edu/science/2017/05/22/physics-department-mourns-passing-of-professor-emeritus-sam-schweber/

Sam Schweber Photo - https://photos.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/photos/schweber-sam-c1