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500 Year-Old Library Catalog Found in University Collection

by on June 4, 2019

What one could call “the holy grail of books” has been found in the Arnamagnæan Collection at the University of Copenhagen. “The Libro de los Epítomes manuscript, which is more than a foot thick, contains more than 2,000 pages and summaries from the library of Hernando Colón, the illegitimate son of Christopher Columbus. In the early 16th century, Colón made it his life’s work to create the biggest library the world had ever known. Running to around 15,000 volumes, the library was put together during Colón’s extensive travels. Today, only around a quarter of the books in the collection survive and have been housed in Seville Cathedral since 1552.”[1]

The funny thing is that nobody was looking for this book because historians and scholars assumed the massive collection had been destroyed. “The idea that this object, which was so central to this extraordinary early 16th-century project — and which one always thought of with a great sense of loss, of what could have been if this had been preserved– for it then to just show up in Copenhagen perfectly preserved, at least 350 years after its last mention in Spain …”[2] It simply lay virtually untouched for over three centuries. But it was Guy Lazure at the University of Windsor in Canada who first made the connection to Colón. The Arnamagnæan Institute then contacted Mark McDonald at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, who passed it on to Dr. Edward Wilson-Lee for verification.[3] Lee, a Cambridge academic, is the author of the recently released biography of Colon titled The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books.

The book tells the extraordinary story of Hernando Colón. “At the peak of the Age of Exploration, Hernando traveled with Columbus on his final voyage to the New World, a journey that ended in disaster, bloody mutiny, and shipwreck. After Columbus’s death in 1506, the eighteen-year-old Hernando sought to continue—and surpass—his father’s campaign to explore the boundaries of the known world by building a library that would collect everything ever printed: a vast holding organized by summaries and catalogues, the first ever search engine for the exploding diversity of written matter as the printing press proliferated across Europe. Hernando restlessly and obsessively amassed his collection based on the groundbreaking conviction that a library of universal knowledge should include ‘all books, in all languages and on all subjects,’ even material often dismissed as ephemeral trash: ballads, erotica, newsletters, popular images, romances, fables.[4]

For libraries and librarians, this is huge news! It provides us with a look into a classification system that predates modern classification systems like the Paris Bookseller’s Classification system (1842), Dewey Decimal Classification system (1876), and Library of Congress Classification system (1897). Although it is well-documented that many libraries throughout recorded history organized books in a certain order within their confines, no universal classification system existed at the time when Hernando Colon began compiling his massive catalogue. His vision and ambition to surpass his father’s legacy led to a manuscript and catalog that the literary and historical world can now appreciate for many years to come. “The discovery in the Arnamagnæan Collection in Copenhagen is extraordinary and a window into a lost world of 16th-century books” said Dr. Edward Wilson-Lee. “It’s a discovery of immense importance, not only because it contains so much information about how people read 500 years ago, but also, because it contains summaries of books that no longer exist, lost in every other form than these summaries.”[5]

[1] Flood, Alison. “Extraordinary 500-year-old library catalogue reveals books lost to time.” The Guardian, April 10, 2019. Accessed May 13, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/apr/10/extraordinary-500-year-old-library-catalogue-reveals-books-lost-to-time-libro-de-los-epitomes

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Amazon.com book synopsis. Accessed May 13, 2019. https://www.amazon.com/Catalogue-Shipwrecked-Books-Christopher-Columbus/dp/1982111399

[5] Flood, Alison. “Extraordinary 500-year-old library catalogue reveals books lost to time.”

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