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Rare and Manuscript Collections

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European History & Culture

King Philip II, Carta de Hidalguia.
Spain (Vallidolid), 1563.

The Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections offers extensive materials documenting European history and culture. The core of Cornell Library’s European collections was formed by Andrew Dickson White, Cornell’s first president, and Willard Fiske, the university’s first librarian. Prominent among these collections are the French Revolution Collection, the largest of its kind outside of Paris, the Cornell Witchcraft Collection, the largest in North America, the Fiske Icelandic Collection, the largest collection on the history and culture of Iceland in North America, and comprehensive printed holdings on the poets Dante Alighieri and Francesco Petrarch.

Early Europe is represented by a large collection of medieval manuscripts, many of them illuminated, offering a valuable resource for the study of the impact of classical literature, medieval art, and religious writings. And a collection of more than 450 fifteenth-century imprints allows researchers to explore the powerful explosion of information and ideas prompted by the introduction of printing with moveable type.

The political, religious, and philosophical upheavals that emerged in the early modern period are also well represented. A.D. White provided the first materials for the Division’s extensive collections on witchcraft and on the Protestant Reformation. The witchcraft collection, which includes more than 3,000 books and manuscripts, uniquely documents the social, political, and religious turmoil sparked by the conflict between doctrine and authority. The religious fervor of the sixteenth century is captured in the library’s holdings on the Reformation, which include early printings of Martin Luther’s works and a sizable gathering of woodcuts. The Division also features significant collections of the works of Benedict de Spinoza and Immanuel Kant.

White also developed what is now the largest compilation of materials on the French Revolution held outside of Paris. The collection includes nearly 18,000 pamphlets and books, more than 16,000 manuscripts, 2,400 prints and maps, and 135 newspaper titles issued during the period. Letters, diaries, currency, citizenship cards, and a significant collection of political caricatures and prints vividly illustrate the day-to-day realities sparked by political and social upheaval.

European Literature is also well represented. Willard Fiske established what are now comprehensive collections on Dante Alighieri and Francesco Petrarch that number in the thousands of volumes, along with a unique gathering of materials on the Rhaeto-Romance language. Fiske also established the library’s 37,000-volume Icelandic Collection. The collection contains virtually every publication issued in Iceland or written in Icelandic before 1930, including the first book printed in Icelandic, a New Testament published in 1540. The collection also includes manuscripts and early photographs and Fiske’s collection of books and pamphlets on runes, the early Germanic alphabet. New holdings are added to the Icelandic collection each year.

Joining the Division’s superb collections of Anglo-American literature are sizable collections of Continental authors, including the works of Voltaire and Denis Diderot, substantial holdings on eighteenth-century French theater and popular literature, and the Zarnack library of German literature, which arrived at Cornell in 1872.