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Special Collections Acquires Important Library of Late Medieval and Reformation History

Heiko A. Oberman (1930-2001)
Heiko A. Oberman (1930-2001)

Dates: November 24, 2010 - December 24, 2010

Contact: Roger Myers


The University Libraries at the University of Arizona (UA) announces the  acquisition of the Oberman Research Library, following the recent completion of the endowment of the Heiko A. Oberman Chair in Late Medieval and Reformation History.  

In addition to securing the Oberman Research Library for the UA, the completion of the Heiko A. Oberman Chair Endowment Fund will ensure that the Division for Late Medieval and Reformation Studies will be able to continue to attract the highest caliber of scholars from around the world to teach at the UA. This position is currently held by renowned scholar, Ute Lotz-Heumann.

Recognized as one of the most famous Reformation scholars in the world, Oberman researched and published extensively in his field. His oeuvre includes seventeen independent works, nineteen edited or co-edited volumes, and 137 articles, prefaces, etc. His most well-known works stem from his study of Martin Luther. His book, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (1982) has been called, “the most controversial study of Luther produced by an expert since the 1920s,” and—originally published in German—has been translated into Italian, Dutch, English, and Spanish.

Oberman’s work led him around the world. After receiving a doctorate in theology in his home city of Utrecht, and being ordained a minister in the Reformed Church of The Netherlands, Oberman accepted a position at Harvard Divinity School, leaving only to assume the directorship of the Institute for Late Middle Ages and Reformation at the University of Tübingen, where he continued to expand his reputation as a scholar of international prominence in his field. Oberman was called to the University of Arizona in 1984. Named a Regents’ Professor in 1988, he became the founding director of the now renowned Division for Late Medieval and Reformation Studies.

As a particularly prolific scholar, Oberman accumulated a lifetime’s worth of source materials, a working library of more than 10,000 volumes, some of which are quite rare. Appraised in 1998 at $1.2 million, the Oberman Research Library was characterized as the largest collection of its kind remaining in private hands in North America. Prior to his passing in 2001, Oberman himself declared that the high ranking of the Division for Late Medieval and Reformation Studies is due largely to students’ ability to access this tremendous resource, and it was his intention to bequeath this trove to the UA. In what has been called a typically creative gesture however, Oberman made this gift a challenge grant: he would donate his library only upon the creation of an endowed faculty chair within the Division.

Regents’ Professor of History Susan Karant-Nunn, who succeeded Oberman as director of the Division, notes the wisdom of this provision, explaining that “if there were not a chair—that is, someone actively teaching doctoral students in this field on campus—the books would go unused and ultimately might be sold.” Upon her husband’s passing, Toetie Oberman confirmed this sentiment, saying, “It was my husband’s wishes for the work of the Division to be preserved. We do not want it to be endangered.” By issuing this challenge grant to the university, Oberman ensured that his research library would not only remain intact, in safe-keeping, but that it would also continue to be of practical use.

The Heiko A. Oberman Research Library includes more than 100 original Martin Luther texts, over 60 John Calvin texts, as well as the first collected edition (dated 1545) of Ulrich Zwingli’s work, “the crowning glory of a distinguished collection.” Zwingli, the first of the “Reformed” Reformers, is thought by some to have had an even greater influence than his counterparts on Western European, and subsequently American, life and thought. In addition to their significant cultural value, these four Zwingli volumes alone are estimated to be worth $125,000.

The Oberman Library also contains writings from the Second Vatican Council, including drafts of each document produced, as well as final printings. Thought to be the only complete holding of this kind outside of official Catholic Church archives, this collection presents scholars with a unique opportunity to research the evolution of Roman Catholic thought from the Council of Trent though Vatican II.

Roger Myers, librarian and archivist with the University Libraries’ Special Collections, has said that the addition of the Oberman collection will “dramatically enhance” the stature of the University Libraries on the national scene. Because the UA is a public university, keeping the collection here is a boon to scholarship. Of these books, Myers says, “scholars coming from other universities to see them would otherwise have to go to Harvard, Princeton or Yale.” In fact, in deciding to bequeath this legacy to the UA, Oberman turned down attractive offers from other institutions interested in purchasing his library. Explaining her predecessor’s determination to keep this resource here, Karant-Nunn has been quoted as saying, “Harvard offered to purchase the library years ago. I believe Professor Oberman thought UA needed the books more.” The Oberman Research Library is expected to attract scholars from around the country to Tucson.

As funds become available, Special Collections will continue to purchase additional relevant volumes to augment the collection. Information regarding all books held within Special Collections is available via the Library’s online catalog, and books are available for viewing upon request.