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Icelandic History & Culture

Glymur, Hvalfjörður. Frederick W. W. Howell. Collodion print, 1923.

The Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections is home to the Fiske Icelandic Collection, internationally one of the three largest collections on Icelandic literature and civilization and unrivaled in its resources for the study of the medieval Nordic world.

Daniel Willard Fiske (1831-1904), Cornell’s first university librarian, an accomplished linguist and an inveterate book collector, began building his Icelandic library while still a young (and impoverished) student mastering Danish and Swedish during his first tour through Scandinavia in 1850. His one trip to Iceland (1879) and residence in Florence during the last two decades of his life offered him the opportunities to enlarge the collection significantly and, as important for the bequest to Cornell, to classify the books with the help of young Icelandic assistants.

Halldór Hermannsson, one of those young assistants, became first curator of the Fiske Icelandic Collection upon its arrival at Cornell in 1905. He compiled the Catalogue of the Icelandic Collection bequeathed by Willard Fiske (1914), still considered one of the outstanding achievements of Icelandic bibliography. As important to Icelandic studies was Halldór’s editorship of the Islandica series, for which Fiske also bequeathed support. Halldór himself authored or edited the first thirty-one publications of this series.

The Fiske Icelandic Collection has quadrupled in size during its first century at Cornell, and the collecting program is active today, even though the sheer volume of literature printed in and about Iceland has long precluded comprehensive acquisition. Holdings in modern Icelandic literature are especially strong, with periodicals in literary criticism supporting the collection of fiction, poetry and drama.

The collection features an enormous compilation of Norse saga literature dating from the first printed editions of the genre, as well as major holdings supporting research across the range of Nordic medieval studies. Topics include early voyages and settlement in the North Atlantic Ocean, exploration of America, Viking relations with Western Europe and the Mediterranean world, Runic studies, Norse mythology, and the advent of Christianity in Scandinavia. The collection documents modern Iceland with books on nearly every aspect of modern Icelandic history (from the Reformation in 1550) as well as literary works; and with shelves of books on religious life, social and economic conditions, foreign travels in Iceland and Iceland’s transformation from a Danish colony of fewer then 100,000 people in the nineteenth century into a modern republic in the twenty-first with triple the population.

Access notes:

The Fiske Icelandic Collection welcomes inquiries from scholars and interested readers, and actively solicits materials for contribution. Please contact

Patrick J. Stevens
Curator of the Fiske Collections and Selector for Jewish Studies, Cornell University Library
Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections
2B Carl A. Kroch Library
Cornell University Library
Ithaca, NY 14853-5302

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