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Lichtenstein, Walter, 1880-1964



  • Existence: 1880 - 1964


Walter Lichtenstein was born on April 13, 1880, in Braunschweig, Germany, son of Joseph Lichtenstein and Rosa Elkan. Lichtenstein succeeded Lodilla Ambrose as Head Librarian at Northwestern University Library in 1908, a position he held for 10 years. Lichtenstein is best remembered for his extensive book-buying trips to Europe. He was forced to resign from the library amidst strong anti-German sentiment in 1918, at which point he joined the First National Bank of Chicago. Lichtenstein eventually became Vice President of the bank.

The Lichtenstein family immigrated to the United States when Walter was two years old. Upon their arrival in the United States, the Lichtenstein family resided in New Jersey. Walter was raised to be bilingual. He attended the Hoboken Academy, and then went on to New York University where he studied French and earned his Bachelors degree in Philosophy in 1899. From there, he began work at Harvard University. For several years, he was employed at Harvard's Hohenzollern Collection of German History. During this time, he made himself invaluable to Harvard's Head Librarian, Archibald Cary Coolidge, going on several book-buying trips to Europe. In 1907, Lichtenstein graduated from Harvard with a PhD in History.

On August 7, 1908, Lichtenstein was appointed Head Librarian of the Northwestern University Library, succeeding Lodilla Ambrose. In his ten years as Head Librarian, Lichtenstein increased the staff from eight to fifteen, catalogued 40,000 volumes, created a complete shelf list and inventory, and greatly improved the reference and bibliographic collections. In 1912, because of organizational changes at the University, all the departmental libraries were brought under Lichtenstein's control. Throughout his time at Northwestern, Lichtenstein worked to increase library funding, and was successful in changing accounting practices to increase funds for book buying. While at Northwestern, he constantly struggled with lack of adequate space in the Orrington Lunt Library. This was exacerbated by the forced economies of World War I.

Lichtenstein is perhaps best known in the library world for his important book-buying trips. In 1911 he traveled to Europe and in 1913 to South America. On this second trip, which lasted eighteen months, Lichtenstein purchased materials for Northwestern University, as well as for several other institutions, including Harvard University, the John Crerar Library at the University of Chicago, and the American Antiquarian Society.

In 1918, Lichtenstein was forced to resign from his position at Northwestern Library. While the administration presented financial reasons for their decision, it was surmised that the anti-German sentiment inspired by the war was most likely a major factor. In addition to this, there was considerable attention given to Lichtenstein's suspicious behavior while overseas. The perceived misconduct was such that a State Department investigation was initiated and Lichtenstein's passport was at one point seized. Although charges were eventually dismissed, the events caused permanent damage to his reputation at Northwestern.

Following his dismissal, Lichtenstein took a job at the First National Bank of Chicago, where he eventually became the Vice President. During his nearly 30 years at the bank, he became an expert on international banking. He retired from the bank in 1945. After his retirement, he remained an important figure in the international financial arena, serving in the Financial Institutions Division of the U.S. Military Government in Germany, consulting for International Harvester Company, and speaking and writing extensively. He retired from this second career in 1954 and was at that time appointed Honorary Curator of Harvard University Library. He died at the age of 83 on March 14, 1964 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was survived by his wife Gemma Baumgarten, and their two daughters, Gemma Rizer and Maxine Laves.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Walter Lichtenstein (1880-1964) Papers

Identifier: 9/1/8
Abstract The Walter Lichtenstein Papers fill two boxes, spanning the years 1908 to 1999, with the bulk of the records falling between 1913 and 1918. They comprise two main types of materials: those accumulated by Northwestern University Library (mainly biographical, with some publications, correspondence, and reports relating to his job as Head Librarian), and those compiled by Ralph D. Wagner (Northern Illinois University) in the course of his research for an article entitled "Walter Lichtenstein in...
Dates: 1908-1999