Henry Rosenberg: A Man of Books
By Tom Behrens
Henry Rosenberg, an immigrant from Switzerland to Galveston, was described as a boy of 19 with no money but with native ability; in other words, he was a hard-working young man determined to be the best he could be in whatever endeavor he tried. In the 50 years that Rosenberg lived in Galveston, he was involved in several business enterprises that made him wealthy. However, most Galvestonians remember Rosenberg not because of his financial acumen, but by the name of the Galveston library that bears his name.
In “Henry Rosenberg: 1824-1893 to Commemorate the Gifts of Henry Rosenberg to Galveston,” he is remembered as saying:
“God be praised for books, those lamps that do not dispel the physical darkness but bring light to the mind; those friends who do not fail us; those wise counselors who are not changed with the change of time and circumstance; those associates who, if they be with us afford royal company though our lives be obscure and we be disregarded by those who are for the time being great.”
It was his desire that others receive inspiration from books, “that youths without means might have the opportunity to clinging to these precious possessions as bees cling to the flowers that are the richest in honey.”
The largest bequest from his estate, more than $600,000, was left to the City of Galveston “to organize and endow a free public library for the use of the people of Galveston.” The state issued a charter to the Rosenberg Library Association in 1900. The Association purchased land and then advertised for a design for a building. After a design competition, the contract was awarded to the architectural firm of Eames and Young of St. Louis, Missouri. The library opened on June 22, 1904 (Rosenberg’s birthday), with a collection of 7,000 books.
In addition to the usual library departments, the plans of the board of directors embraced a system of free instructive popular lectures as stated in Rosenberg’s will. Rosenberg requested there be lectures open to the public on practical, literary and scientific subjects.
The people of Galveston eagerly looked forward to the Rosenberg Library free lectures. Jenkin Lloyd Jones, a lecturer on English literature at the University of Chicago extension service, presented the first series in 1905. Jones led a literary discussion and presentation on Hugo, Ibsen, Tolstoy and Sidney Lanier. Board president Colonel M. F. Mott introduced Jones the first night and each evening at 8 p.m. Jones was greeted by an audience of about 500 people.
This first series was a successful beginning of the work of the library’s lecture department. Other lectures were given the same year, and the following winter a still larger number was offered to the public. Beginning with an expenditure of about $500 annually, the work of the lecture department was extended gradually to provide more and more free public lectures each year.
Today the Rosenberg Library is the oldest continuously operating library in Texas. Free lectures and literary presentations continue with a recent presentation on Mark Twain. The library contains one of the major archival collections in Texas documentation, particularly the history of Texas from the time of the Republic through the Civil War and the history of Galveston from the Spanish exploration to present. The map collection includes maps and charts of Texas, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and adjacent coasts dating from the 16th century to the present. Holdings of the museum department include historical artifacts pertaining to Galveston or early Texas, paintings of Galveston subjects by local artists and a sizable collection of Russian and Greek icons. The rare book collection contains first editions and examples of fine printing.
Henry Rosenberg made his wealth as a financier and investor, active in banking, real estate and transportation. But Galveston remembers his legacy through the library that bears his name and imprint. He left provision for the continuance of the light, the inspiration and the wisdom that come from the immortal counselors of all ages and times.