By Cristina Schreil | From the May-June 2020 issue of Strings magazine
For those who can hardly imagine getting giddy over a library collection,
consider at least the sheer numbers behind the Violin Society of America/H.K. Goodkind Collection, housed at Oberlin College: 1,200 books; 40 periodical titles; 13 linear feet of auction catalogs, musical-instrument maker catalogs and brochures, and musical-instrument dealer catalogs; and another five linear feet of research materials.
There are also two 19th-century photo albums (including dozens of photographs of Franz Liszt, royalty, and other historical figures); loose plates with portrait photographs of late-19th-century musical
figures including Berlioz and Toscanini; and nearly 40 black-and-white photographs of rare instruments. For fans who like to imagine what it was like inside Stradivari’s workshop, there’s a painting by Alton S. Tobey (commissioned by H.K. Goodkind) depicting Stradivari at work in Cremona. But this isn’t all: included in the collection is even more ephemera, all in one place, with materials dating from the 17th century onward.
“It’s been carefully curated by initially the Violin Society of America. And then we purchased it together with them,” says Deborah Campana, the head of the Oberlin Conservatory Library. Largely, the collection is a draw for its “materials having to do with the making of violins and stringed instruments,” as Campana says.
The collection was jointly purchased in 1986 by the Violin Society of America and Oberlin College. It all currently resides in the Conservatory Library’s secure vault in the Kohl Building of the conservatory complex. It’s one of Oberlin’s special collections and is stored together with other materials including rare books and scores, sound recordings from 78s to CDs to tapes, periodicals, autographs, paintings, and items such as posters, playbills, and concert programs. As it’s a joint collection with the Violin Society of America, there are also records shedding light on the society itself, including institutional documents and photographs.
Before it found its home in a secure vault, however, it was a personal passion project. Herbert K. Goodkind, born in New York City in 1905, had a serious interest in violin history and construction. He started playing violin at age ten, and later played in chamber-music groups. He also played saxophone. He began collecting materials in his early years, and channeled his lifelong love of violins into identifying, collecting, and appraising rare instruments.
Goodkind also helped found the Violin Society of America in 1973; a year earlier, he published Violin Iconography of Antonio Stradivari, 1644–1737. It’s the book for fans of Stradivari, with many details on all known Stradivari instruments. Over the course of Goodkind’s life (he died in 1982), he had help amassing his collection from his friend Hyman Frankel, who collected rare book titles—more than 1,500 scores for violin—and bows.
“It’s probably one of the finest collections of stringed-instrument publications that you could find anywhere. Just to have it all in one place is unique.”
Today, the collection itself seems just as impressive as the man who originated it. (The 1,200 books total 82 linear feet.) Campana names it a helpful resource for violin historians and makers alike. “If they were doing historical research on a particular varnish, for example, or a particular brand of violin, bow, or instrument, we have catalog records dating back that could be employed,” she offers. There are many materials on violin and violin-bow construction and acoustics. One can look up information about woods, gums, resins, adhesives, and painting techniques.
“It’s probably one of the finest collections of stringed-instrument publications that you could find anywhere. Just to have it all in one place is unique,” says Christopher Germain, violin maker and director of the annual Oberlin Violin Makers Workshop. “For anyone who is an instrument maker, a scholar, or an expert who wants to learn more and to appreciate the extent of what such a large collection is, it’s hard to find a resource like this that’s all in one place. It is quite special and unique.”
Each year, workshop participants are among those interacting regularly with the collection, capitalizing on its sheer volume of data and documentation. In this way, it’s still a living, breathing collection. “There are many, many great archival books related to instrument makers and making that we have the opportunity to access,” says Germain. “It is a valuable resource to people like ourselves—makers, historians of stringed instruments—to be able to take advantage of those materials.”
The collection also directly informs larger projects. Germain explains that each summer at the Oberlin Violin Makers Workshop, there’s a collective project. “We might decide one year to do a particular copy of an instrument, like several years ago when we copied the ‘Betts’ Stradivari. Another year we might have a focus on making a cello, and it might be based on a particular maker—a Cremonese maker or a Venetian maker. Different years we’ve done projects with violas as well,” he says. “Every year there’s an opportunity to access these materials to get additional documented information, which is going to help us in the projects that we have at hand.”
Attending the workshop isn’t the only way to interact with the Goodkind collection. Campana says anyone can request access. Just know that these aren’t materials that can be checked out. As a special collection at Oberlin Library, it’s considered a teaching collection; Campana says it’s essential to promote these materials so students can arrange opportunities to examine or handle them.
Germain adds that the collection itself is more than a look into the past, but also a glimpse into the mind of Goodkind himself. It’s almost like stepping into his personal study. “In the past when I’ve been to the collection and just seen all the special and unique materials that he collected, it gives me quite an insight into the type of man he was,” Germain says. “Obviously he was a very ardent and passionate collector and scholar—just to find some of these rare materials and documents [would have been a challenge] so obviously he was very dedicated.”
Goodkind remains a mighty figure among violin enthusiasts and music historians alike.
“As a researcher on violin iconography, he was passionate about learning all there was to know with respect to the violin,” Campana says. She adds that the fact the collection comprises so many different things is a bonus. “At a time when we spend so many hours transfixed with computer screens, students are delighted to have a tactile encounter with rare items.”