'A quiet, modest genius': David Karpeles leaves behind museums, legacy

The Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum founder died Jan. 19.

David Karpeles
Duluth native David Karpeles, founder of Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in Duluth and many other Karpeles libraries across the U.S., died Jan. 19.
Contributed / Jason Karpeles
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DULUTH — David Karpeles, founder of Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum at 902 E. First St., died Jan. 19 in Santa Barbara, California. He was 85 years old.

Two of his children, Mark Karpeles and Cheryl Alleman, will assume the positions of president CEO and vice president chief operating officer, respectively, of the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museums in Duluth and 13 other locations in the U.S.

"I think that Duluth can expect things to continue in the way that they have been," Matthew Sjelin, director of the Karpeles Manuscript Museum in Duluth, said. "I believe because there are more minds involved with direct operations at the museum, you'll see ideas manifest more quickly."

Mark said some new ideas include an additional location in St. Augustine, Florida. Mark wanted the new location to match the historical essence of the Karpeles museums. The Duluth location could undergo exterior repair, Mark said.

Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum
The Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum is located at 902 E. First St., Duluth.
Contributed / John Shirley

"I've always known that I would be eventually taking over. He wouldn't talk about death ever, but, he did tell me a tidbit here and there," Mark said. "He did tell me what he wanted. We're adding another location. My dad was about having a lot of locations."


According to the Karpeles Manuscript Library website, the library is the world's largest private holding of important original manuscript documents.

The Duluth museum, founded in 1983, features a rotating exhibit designed for attendees to study up to 26 documents at one time on a plethora of topics, such as history, music, science, literature and art. Admission is free at all of the Karpeles libraries.

"He would work all day, every day," Mark said."Even when my mom had guests over, she'd have to push him to go talk to them. I would say he was at his desk for 12-16 hours a day — and he loved it. He became a true scholar in history."

David Karpeles was born in Santa Barbara on Jan. 26, 1936, and moved to Duluth in 1942. He graduated from Denfeld High School at age 17 before enrolling at the University of Minnesota Duluth as an undergraduate student in mathematics and physics. In 1956, he graduated cum laude after just three years, then attended the University of Minnesota to continue studying mathematics, and also studied at the University of California and San Diego State University.

He also worked at General Electric, where he invented a bank-check handwriting program. The program automatically read handwritten figure amounts on checks, printed them on the margin, and verified signatures.

David earned a master's degree in mathematics and two doctorates in religion and history. He then started investing in real estate in 1968 and his investments grew to over 300 homes. He offered his tenants "creative financing" so they could buy homes they rented, which enabled people to become first-time homeowners, Mark said.

While working in real estate, he also began collecting manuscripts from across the globe.

Mike Shannon, of Duluth, examines a manuscript from Bill Pagel's collection of Dylan memorabilia in 2017. Pagel shared pieces from his estimated 12 tons of Dylan history during a month-long exhibition at Karpeles Manuscript Museum.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

"He was buying from 1978 until his last days," Mark said. "His goal was to encourage children to learn."


Sjelin said David's passion for sharing his love for knowledge touched communities across the nation.

"It's meaningful work; it's absolutely important to pass this knowledge down," Sjelin said. "From my perspective, I got the impression that he was a quiet, modest genius. An absolutely brilliant man that did not have an ego — he'd say, 'Don't call me Dr. Karpeles — it's David.'"

David's mission will continue the way it always has, Sjelin said.

"I didn't speak to him often, but he was a joy to work for and it'll be a joy to work for his children," he said.

Mark said Karpeles Manuscript Library Museums are located in mid-size cities to provide greater access to smaller populations:

  • Duluth
  • Santa Barbara, California
  • Jacksonville, Florida
  • Fort Wayne, Indiana
  • Rock Island, Illinois
  • Shreveport, Louisiana
  • St. Louis, Missouri
  • Great Falls, Montana
  • Buffalo, New York
  • Gloversville, New York
  • Newburgh, New York
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Charleston, South Carolina
  • Tacoma, Washington
Standing on one side of the main floor at Duluth's curious Karpeles Manuscript Library, you can hear a conversation 30 feet away as if it were happening right next to you. It's the architectural

Abigael Smith is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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