The Exciting Discovery of an Epic Library Catalogue

The Exciting Discovery of an Epic Library Catalogue
Epic Library Catalogue
OK, so not THE epic library catalogue, but a proof from the 1861 Melbourne Public Library catalogue via State Library Victoria

Sometimes it’s funny what you find isn’t it? You start an internet search with a clear goal, and this leads to that, which comes round to the other. And before you know it, the day’s gone and you haven’t found what you were looking for.

Though you may have found something interesting instead.

Like an epic library catalogue from the sixteenth century!

The Epic Library Catalogue

According to Alison Flood, a 500 year old record of Hernando Colón’s library catalogue was recently discovered.

Seemingly Colón (1488 – 1539), illegitimate son of the Christopher Columbus, was an avid reader. He collected everything he could get his hands on – from the classics, to news, to almanacs.

In fact, he spent the last 30 years of his life travelling the world collecting books. He wanted to build the world’s largest library.

A concern I can completely sympathise with.

A “big” library of the time was around 3,000 books, yet he managed to collect an epic catalogue of more than 15,000. You could say he achieved his goal.

Flood quotes Dr Edward Wilson-Lee of Cambridge University (England); Colón purchased 700 books in Nuremberg in December 1521, and another thousand in January 1522.

He also hired a bunch of people to read and summarise each of the books. An old, old school Cliff Notes or Blinkist. Each record includes cost and other purchase information, plus coordinates to allow for for easy retrieval. Or as Wilson-Lee likens it, “the world’s first search engine.” Or as Sharon Hill describes it, “an ancient bestsellers list.”

The result is/was the Libro de los Epítomes. The hand-written manuscript is more than 30 cm (1′) wide and contains more than 2,000 pages summarising about 15,000 titles. Many lost to us in their full written form.

Less than 4,000 of Colón’s original collection remain as the Biblioteca Colombina in the Seville Cathedral.

The Discovery

The discovery of the catalogue is an adventure in itself.

The Libro de los Epítomes was part of the collection of Icelandic scholar Árni Magnússon (1663-1730) (now known as the Arnamagnæan Collection) who donated it to the University of Copenhagen on his death.

The University speculates the catalogue was originally part of the collection owned by Gaspar de Guzmán, Count-Duke of Olivares (1587-1645). They believe it arrived in Denmark via Cornelius Lerche (1615-1681), Danish envoy to the Spanish Court during the 1650s and 60s.

The catalogue was discovered in the mainly Icelandic language collection by Professor Guy Lazure (medieval and Renaissance Europe historian), of the Canadian University of Windsor in 2013. He told Hill there was “an Indiana Jones feel to it”.

The manuscript was then verified by Mark McDonald (curator Italian, Spanish, Mexican, and early French prints and illustrated books at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art), Wilson-Lee and José María Pérez Fernández (University of Granada).

If you’re interested in looking at Libro de los Epítomes, the Arnamagnæan Institute is digitising it, though it’s not yet clear what access will like, or whether it will remain in the original Latin or be translated into other modern languages.

If you’d like to know more about Hernando Colón, Dr Wilson-Lee’s book The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Young Columbus and the Quest for a Universal Library is probably the place to start.

And if you’d like to know more about Colón’s library, you’ll have to wait until 2020 when Wilson-Lee and Pérez Fernández book new will be released.

For the Future

In the meantime, next time you give the gift of a print book, make sure you write both your names and the date in it, because you never know…

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