The Fiske Icelandic Collection in the Cornell University Library
A guest contribution by Patrick J. Stevens.
I don’t see your point as to [Ludvig Franz Adalbert] Wimmer’s book on runes. The runes form the oldest known form of the Icelandic language. You might as well object to any of the oldest skaldic lays, produced in Norway […] that they had nothing to do with Iceland because Iceland didn’t then exist. We are including the Old-Northern tongue & literature of whatever epoch. Ask Dr. Finnur [Jónsson].1
Thus commences one letter among the many Daniel Willard Fiske, indefatigable book collector and first university librarian of Cornell University, sent during his last years to a young Icelandic assistant, Halldór Hermannsson. The topic was, of course, the scope of Willard Fiske’s personal Icelandic collection, which at the death of its owner in September 1904 became by bequest the property of the young university still under construction above the small city of Ithaca and the southern extreme of Cayuga, one of the magnificent Finger Lakes in upstate New York. Fiske’s letter is remarkable not only because it testifies to the breadth of his vision as a collector2 but also because the name to this day of the collection – the Fiske Icelandic Collection – itself suggests a geographical circumscription when, in fact, Fiske’s fascination with the Norse Atlantic world embraced an entire cultural phenomenon from its dawn in the Dark Ages to the first days of the twentieth century.
In his penurious student days – Fiske withdrew from Hamilton College and wound up at the University of Uppsala in 1850–1851, achieving along the way fluency in German, Danish and Swedish3 – Fiske made the first purchases for what evolved into his Icelandic collection, notable among them a copy of Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar published in 1689 at Skálholt. Returning from Europe, Fiske worked inter alia for several years as a private librarian. In 1867 the newly chartered Cornell University offered him a post as “Professor of North-European Languages and Librarian,”4 which spoke aptly of his capacities and experience.
In summer and autumn 1879, Willard Fiske made his only visit to Iceland, whose literature he had been collecting slowly over the course of thirty years. Fiske’s field notes, preserved in the Fiske Icelandic Collection, are jottings on Icelandic vocabulary, idiomatic expressions and available books rather than a flowing narrative of his travels through the island, although there are several prose passages expressive of the landscape around him.5 While there he added to the number of friendships he was to sustain with Icelanders until his death. Widowed in 1881 after a year of marriage to the wealthy, cerebral but consumptive Jennie McGraw, Fiske resigned from Cornell in 1883 and lived thenceforward in Florence.6 The legacy from Jennie assured Fiske not only a comfortable existence but also his capacity to acquire for Cornell four remarkable collections: Dante, Petrarch, Rhaeto-Romanic and Icelandic.
Halldór Hermannsson, who was instrumental assisting Fiske in organizing his Icelandic collection during the latter’s final years in Florence, became curator in 1905, serving until 1948. During his tenure the collection nearly quadrupled, from 8600 to more than 24,000 volumes. As significant as the works on the shelves were Halldór’s unusual talents in bibliography. He published the catalogue of the collection in 1914 and two supplements, in 1927 and 1943; a Catalogue of Runic Literature in the collection appeared in 1918; and Halldór authored or edited the first thirty-one volumes of the Islandica series, beginning with a Bibliography of the Icelandic Sagas and Minor Tales in 1908. Six curators followed Halldór, three Icelanders through 1983 and three Americans thereafter. In a sense, the Cornell University Library grew in size and complexity around its early special collections, some of which were donated by the university’s first president, Andrew Dickson White, who was not only a scholar but a diplomat, serving in Germany and Russia; like Willard Fiske, long his friend, he was a discerning collector of books and manuscripts.
Today the Fiske Icelandic Collection preserves its reputation as one of the chief repositories anywhere of literature on and from Iceland and the Norse world of the Middle Ages. Cornell scholars in Medieval Studies and researchers from the international academic community, including from Iceland, visit the collection regularly. Modern books and journals circulate from Olin Library, which houses the Cornell collections in humanities and social sciences, while antiquarian books and manuscript holdings are available through the reading room of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. The concentration of editions and criticism in Old Norse-Icelandic literature to be found in the Fiske Icelandic Collection is incomparable in the Western Hemisphere. Moreover, allied historical and cultural studies of the Viking Age match the collection’s core literary strengths in every regard. Modern Icelandic literature, among the most active of belles lettres flourishing in Europe, occupies more than seventy shelves in the library. Dozens of other shelves are devoted to modern history, travel literature, the Norse exploration of America and theological works.
At the close of the twentieth century, the Icelandic National Library and the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland launched a digital initiative that, with extensive collaboration from the Cornell University Library and the generous support of, inter alia, the Mellon Foundation, became SagnaNet (or SagaNet) – a textual image repository for hundreds of Icelandic manuscripts. Þorsteinn Hallgrímsson, an engineer by training who had worked for some years in Germany before becoming deputy Icelandic national librarian, was the Icelandic leader for the project and manifested what I called at the time “the sheer vision and talent that Icelanders seem to have for applying the new to the ancient.”7
In recent years the successor to SagnaNet, which has incorporated its image and metadata archives, has emerged. Principally a collaborative effort between the Icelandic repositories and the Danish Arnamagnaean Institute, handrit.is perpetuates the high standards of its predecessor in terms of image quality, exactitude of cataloguing and repository expansion. The Fiske Collection component in SagnaNet, not yet accessible through handrit.is, was digitized microfilm of the remarkably extensive holdings in nineteenth-century criticism of Old Norse-Icelandic literature. The film, produced through a hefty grant from the US National Endowment for the Humanities in 1995–1997, was ideal (in its digital version) for conveying the intellectual value of a vast literature of established texts, translations and commentary.
The rising facility of digitization has been a significant factor in archiving and interpreting visual resources in the Icelandic Collection. The 416 Icelandic and Faroese Photographs of Frederick W.W. Howell, which include contributions by Henry A. Perkins and Magnús Ólafsson and document the landscape and people of Iceland at the close of the nineteenth century, are available via the Internet, including in flickr: The Commons. Scores of antique glass slides and stereoscopic images await scanning initiatives we hope to launch in 2014.
Also under investigation is a large quantity of memorial brochures containing erfiljóð [memorial poetry] and the lyrics of hymns recited during Icelandic funerals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Chronological and demographic data make this brochure collection a potential source for significant information on Icelandic society and the culture of commemoration just as the country was achieving autonomy and experiencing major internal migrations and the beginnings of a national economy.
Under way as well is an embryonic initiative to establish eventually, through the Fiske Icelandic Collection, an online database Concordance to the Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases of the Old Icelandic Sagas (currently accessible as a web site). The initiative, which envisions ongoing contributions and interactions from the community of Norse scholars, is the brainchild of Professor Richard Harris of the University of Saskatchewan, who recognized in Cornell’s Fiske Collection an optimal location for perpetuating the Concordance in proximity to the largest and deepest concentration of Old Norse research literature in North America.
There are also initiatives under way within the Cornell Library to offer more description of the Fiske Icelandic Collection online. Currently a general introductory page directs researchers to four specific sites: an introduction to the rare component of the Fiske Icelandic Collection; information on Icelandic Studies collection development and the (circulating) Fiske Icelandic Collection at Why Icelandic?; the electronic version of a 2005 exhibition, The Passionate Collector: Willard Fiske and his Libraries, that celebrated the centennial of Fiske’s bequests to the Cornell Library; and the Islandica series site.
In recent years, the venerable Islandica series marked a quiet centennial by publishing two volumes of essays and, a few years later, a monographic study; all three works were dedicated to advancing Old Norse-Icelandic studies. All new volumes of the series are available both electronically and in print, and an initiative is under way to make older numbers (currently volumes 1 through 14) accessible through the HathiTrust Digital Library. More volumes are in preparation for publication next year in Islandica, whose scope will continue, as it has historically, to include all possible facets of Icelandic literary and cultural studies.
Patrick J. Stevens has been Curator of the Fiske Icelandic Collection since 1994. He is managing editor of the Islandica series of Icelandic and Norse Studies associated with the collection. He is also selector for the field of Jewish Studies in the Cornell University Library.
All images in this article are from the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library and are in the public domain.
- Daniel Willard Fiske to Halldór Hermannsson, 21 October , Fiske Icelandic Collection, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. Finnur Jónsson (1858–1934) was a leading Icelandic literary scholar of the day. Fiske was in frequent contact with a range of scholars in the Old Norse-Icelandic field, among them the great German legal scholar Konrad von Maurer (1823–1902), whose letters to Fiske are preserved in the correspondence files of the Fiske Icelandic Collection.
- In the preface to the 1914 Catalogue of the Icelandic Collection Bequeathed by Willard Fiske, Halldór categorizes the already considerable holdings (by then ca. 10,200 volumes) into two areas, the first having everything to do with Old Norse-Icelandic literature, including “all publications which, in one way or another, elucidate” these works; the second including all literature on all topics from the sixteenth century onward, “whether printed in Iceland or elsewhere […] dealing with Iceland, the nature of the country, and its affairs […].”
- For Fiske’s own travel narratives, see Daniel Willard Fiske, Memorials of Willard Fiske, collected by his literary executor, Horatio S. White. 2, The Traveller (Boston: R.G. Badger, 1920). For Fiske’s sojourns in Scandinavia and Iceland, see also Horatio S. White, Willard Fiske: Life and Correspondence: a Biographical Study (New York: Oxford University Press, 1925). Kristín Bragadóttir has published an extensive study of Fiske’s relationship with Iceland and the Icelanders in Willard Fiske: vinur Íslands og velgjörðamaður [friend and benefactor of Iceland] (Reykjavík: Háskólaútgáfan, 2008); this work is currently being translated into English.
- H.S. White, Willard Fiske, 26.
- See H.S. White, Willard Fiske and especially Kristín Bragadóttir, Willard Fiske, for a description of Fiske’s time in Iceland, much of it spent on horseback traversing the country from Húsavík in the north to Reykjavík in the southwest.
- There are various sources on Fiske’s widowhood and the subsequent controversial litigation that led to Willard Fiske’s entitlement as principal heir to his wife’s considerable estate. See Ronald John Williams, Jennie McGraw Fiske: Her Influence upon Cornell University (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1949) for a sympathetic treatment of both Jennie and Willard. Andrew Dickson White (who witnessed the marriage of Jennie and Willard in Berlin) also wrote on the lawsuit in his autobiography; Morris Bishop is rather less sympathetic to Willard Fiske in his history of Cornell.
- Patrick J. Stevens, “From Netting Sagas to SagaNet,” unpublished paper delivered at the conferences of the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study and the Society of American Archivists, 1999.
- The British scholar Andrew Wawn (among others) has researched the reception of Old Norse-Icelandic literature in the nineteenth century, and referred to the Victorian and English ideals in this illustration in a 2000 symposium on saga literature in Washington. The reference to the greenery invokes his more precise and scholarly description.