A July 2 obituary and a July 4 Local Life feature stated incorrectly that J. William Matheson had worked at the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana. The school's name is Indiana University. (Published 7/21/04)
In 1814, British forces set fire to the U.S. Capitol, and the 3,000 books that constituted the original Library of Congress were lost. The next year, Thomas Jefferson sold 6,500 volumes from his own library to the government, helping the Library of Congress rise from its ashes to become the world's largest research institution.
The ghost of Jefferson might linger over the Library of Congress, but in more recent years, a reserved man named J. William Matheson did as much as anyone to broaden the library's rare-book holdings and make them part of the nation's scholarly dialogue. Mr. Matheson, who died June 17 of colon cancer at age 77, managed those collections through most of the 1970s and '80s.
"He was a private person who understood the public mission of his work," said Alan Fern, the library's former director of special collections.
Mr. Matheson was a trim, dapper man whose quietly refined life was a gentle rebuke to the noisy, vulgar world. Yes, he was an internationally recognized expert on rare books, but he approached everything in his life with a combination of scholarly rigor and good taste.
He had an expert knowledge of classical music, particularly piano music, opera and Italian, German and French art songs. He and his wife of 44 years, Nina Matheson, a retired medical librarian, were fond of entertaining, and often invited friends to their home in Chevy Chase to listen to music. They had informal contests to see who could identify musicians and singers from historical recordings.
"He could tell you who performed a certain role in 1923," Fern said. "If he wanted to know about something, he learned everything about it."
Mr. Matheson's collection of 15,000 record albums -- all of them precisely indexed, of course -- has been donated to the University of Utah's School of Music. He sometimes played the piano, but he knew his limits.
In the words of his wife, "He was not proud of his playing."
After he became director of the Rare Books Division of the Library of Congress in 1972, Mr. Matheson changed its title and its scope, renaming it the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Besides the remnants of Jefferson's library, it contains more than 800,000 objects, including books, pamphlets, theater playbills, posters, photographs, musical scores and manuscripts.
Although Mr. Matheson was never in the headlines himself, some of the items he handled certainly were. Under his leadership, the library acquired the papers of President Abraham Lincoln -- including his eyeglasses, handkerchief and wallet and news clippings in his pocket the night he was assassinated -- 5,000 cookbooks, early paperback collections, pulp fiction, works of modern poetry, narratives of former slaves, objects associated with Russian czars and the private library of Adolf Hitler.
"He was a meticulous person," said Fern, who was Mr. Matheson's supervisor. "That was one of the things that assisted him in his library collections. We're talking about objects worth millions of dollars. To manage those well, you have to be meticulous."
His expertise in literature, printing, bookbinding and illustration -- anything having to do with books -- reached back beyond Gutenberg.
"He was so knowledgeable," said bibliographical scholar G. Thomas Tanselle of New York, "you could hardly pick up a book he didn't know something about."
Internationally known among librarians and rare-book collectors, Mr. Matheson helped engineer the transfer of the extraordinary Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection to the Library of Congress in 1980 from its home in Pennsylvania. The collection, which includes thousands of illustrated books and prints from the 15th century to the 20th, is considered the most important of its kind in the world. It took a year to catalogue the items and arrange the shipment, which was made under police escort.
"The arrival of the Rosenwald Collection made an enormous difference in the library's holdings," Fern said. "When Bill arrived, there was only a small portion of the Rosenwald Collection at the library. When he left, it was there in its own room."
Mr. Matheson was born in Montreal and grew up in Everett, Wash. At the University of Washington in Seattle, he received bachelor's and master's degrees in English, as well as a master's in library science.
He did graduate study in English at the University of Chicago, then worked at the Lilly Library of the University of Indiana before becoming rare-books librarian at Washington University in St. Louis from 1962 to 1971. He was at the Library of Congress from 1971 until his retirement in 1987.
Mr. Matheson spent many weekends searching for books at secondhand shops and amassed a private library of some 30,000 volumes, including 12,000 books about 20th-century poetry and an equal number of books about books. In retirement, he was a dealer in rare books.
He also studied food and wine with the same dedication that he applied to opera, poetry and rare books.
"We did a great deal of traveling, beginning in the late '60s, in pursuit of wine and food," his wife said.
"It was typical of him," she added, "that, for about 30 years, we kept every wine label. He was a cataloguer by instinct."