A New Yorker by birth, Fritz Liebert graduated in English at Yale in 1933. His pre-war career was as a newspaperman, gathering experience he was to put to good use during war work with the economics branch of the Office of Strategic Services, and later in well-judged public relations for his library and its collections. He belonged to one of those generations of pre-war Yale men whose intellectual and collecting instincts had been inspired by Chauncey Tinker's Johnsonian scholarship. It was his 18th- century interests that brought him back to Yale when the war was over, first as a Research Associate in the Sterling Library but with an increasing involvement in library administration.
The later 1940s were a good time to be an 18th-century specialist in New Haven, for there was the probability that Yale would acquire the James Boswell archives, at last reunited in the United States in the possession of Colonel Ralph Isham.
Liebert was one of the quayside party which deputised for Isham when the Boswell papers arrived in New York on the Queen Mary in 1948, and he acted as go-between during their purchase by Yale a year later. He was involved with them for the rest of his life, as a member of the Boswell editorial committee from its inception, and he was for long chairman of the publication committee of the Yale Edition of Samuel Johnson, presiding over its stately progress. He was specially attracted to Johnson. He collected his works and memorabilia with gusto, and as generously passed them on to Yale, published a number of articles, and encouraged many young Johnsonian scholars.
At Yale he became Curator of the Rare Book Room at the Sterling Library from 1958 to 1963. It had become clear that the university's rapidly growing rare book collections would need separate accommodation, which the three Beinecke brothers were willing to provide. Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill designed a fine, rectangular granite and marble construction, beautifully finished, which was opened in 1963. Fritz Liebert then received the keys of this fine new building like the captain of a newly commissioned liner. He was intensely proud of the building he served as Librarian until 1972.
There had been problems during its construction. He liked to tell of the architect's disappointment when the books in the massive glazed internal stack did not all have blue spines as in his drawings: Liebert explained that a more practical colour scheme would be necessary. The building - "a source of learning and inspiration" unlike so many of its generation - has stood the test of time. During his curatorship its collections developed purposefully, in its special areas of German literature, Western Americana, and medieval manuscripts as well as Liebert's own interests in English literature.
He had a particular rapport with benefactors - from the Beinecke family downwards - and was much liked in the higher echelons of the rare-book trade. Hans Kraus, the greatest dealer of his generation, greatly appreciated Liebert's taste and judgment, and he contributed much more than an introduction to Kraus's memoirs, A Rare-Book Saga, published in 1978. Fritz and his wife Laura were excellent hosts, always sensitive to the particular occasion, and his own anecdotal jocularity was well balanced by her dour one-liners. He was in his element in New Haven restaurants like the now-defunct Old Heidelberg, where he had his special chair, and he had a taste for martinis and ample steaks.
In retirement he often found his way back to the Beinecke, until his arthritic knees made the short journey too difficult. After that he remained a contributor to the Library Gazette, providing memorial tributes to deceased donors laced with reminiscence only he could provide, and usually accompanied by a text, wryly chosen from Proverbs or Psalms, which was always spot on.Herman Wardwell ("Fritz") Liebert, librarian: born New York 24 March 1911; staff, Paul Block newspapers, 1933-41, Office of Strategic Services, 1941-45; Research Assistant/Associate, Yale University Library 1948-58, Curator, Rare Books Room 1958-63; Librarian, Beinecke Library, 1963-72; President, Bibliographical Society of America, 1964-66; married 1936 Laura Pierson (deceased; one son, one daughter); died New Haven, Connecticut 13 December 1994.Reuse content