Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Fiske Collection at Cornell

Earlier this week the president of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, traveled to Cornell University in Ithaca, NY to present the Order of the Falcon, one of Iceland's highest honors, to a librarian.

Why? The Fiske Icelandic Collection at Cornell is one of the three largest collections of books on Icelandic literature and civilization in the world (the other two are in Reykjavik and Copenhagen), and its librarian, Patrick Stevens, has been very active not only in preserving the collection and making it accessible, but also in greatly increasing it.

Cornell's first librarian, Daniel Willard Fiske, was a friend of Iceland. Upon his death in 1904 he bequeathed the university a collection of books now valued at over $30 million. Since then, the Fiske Icelandic Collection has quadrupled in size. It contains the largest selection of books in America by modern Icelandic authors and claims to be "unrivaled in its resources for the study of the medieval Nordic world."

That doesn't sound like an exaggeration to me. As a writer who specializes in Viking culture, Norse mythology, Icelandic sagas, skaldic poetry, and the Norse voyages to America, the Fiske Collection is the library of my dreams. Some of its books date back to the 1500s. Others were published this year.

Patrick Stevens (right) receives the Order of the Falcon.
I first visited the Fiske Collection in November 1989, 12 years before my first book came out. At the time I was employed as a science writer for Penn State University, and I had gone to Cornell to attend a meeting of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. The speakers at these meetings are hand-picked for their skill at making the latest scientific discoveries both relevant and exciting--and I'm ashamed to say I remember none of it at all. What I do remember is contacting librarian P.M. Mitchell in advance of my visit and asking if I might take a look at some of the books in the Icelandic collection. I was working on a historical novel and was particularly interested, I told him, in old accounts of people traveling by horseback. I arranged to meet him on the first day of the conference, a Sunday.

It hadn't occurred to me that the Fiske Collection would be closed on a Sunday. Asking directions at the library information desk, I was redirected down a darkened corridor toward an open door from which spilled a pool of yellow light. Stepping inside, apologies on my lips, I was greeted warmly by an elderly gentleman--I want to dress him in a cardigan sweater and give him a pipe, but I think I'm confusing him with a famous portrait of J.R.R. Tolkien. He was that kind of fellow. He was just making tea, would I like some?

He had several stacks of books on his desk for me, from Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas by Sabine Baring-Gould (1863) to Six Weeks in the Saddle by S.E. Waller (1874) to Routes Over the Highlands by Daniel Bruun (1907). Now these books are available over the Internet, scanned by Google Books, but in 1989 they were very rare. As I paged through them, wondering where even to begin, Mitchell handed me a mug of tea--and a key. "I'll just leave you to it," he said. The key opened both the library building and his office. I could use his desk, after hours, as long as the conference lasted. "And help yourself to the tea."

And so began several long, long nights poring over musty old traveler's tales and taking notes (on a yellow legal pad, in pencil), some of which informed my first book, A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse (2001) and others of which ended up in my most recent book, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths (2012). (The historical novel I'd been working on was never published.)

Willard Fiske
If I could go back in time, I'd love to meet Willard Fiske. We have a lot in common. According to "The Passionate Collector," an exhibition Patrick Stevens and his colleagues put on in 2005 and preserved online, Fiske's "fascination with Norse myth" inspired him to sail to Copenhagen in 1850, when he was only 19. He studied Danish and Icelandic--and began collecting Icelandic books. Soon he moved on to the University of Uppsala, where he learned Swedish well enough to give lectures on American and English literature. He had hoped to sail on to Iceland in 1852, but things didn't work out and he would not make it to the island whose literature he loved until 1879.

Fiske was not only a gifted linguist, he was a writer, supporting his studies by working as a journalist. Returning home, he embarked on a career marked by his passion for the written word--and his inability to keep still. He was assistant librarian at the Astor Library in New York. He founded a magazine, The American Chess Monthly. He became general secretary of the American Geographical Society, then left for Vienna in 1861 as an attache. In 1863, he became an editor of the Syracuse Daily Journal. He tried to run a bookstore, returned to journalism as the managing editor of the Hartford Courant, then gave it all up to travel again, this time through Europe and the Middle East.

In 1868, Fiske joined Cornell University (founded in 1865) as its first librarian. He also took charge of what we'd now call the university's PR office, its alumni office, and even its university press. He taught a journalism course and served, as well, as Professor of North European Languages, offering classes in Icelandic, Swedish, German--and even Persian.

According to "The Passionate Collector," "In July 1879, Willard Fiske was finally able to travel to Iceland." He landed at Húsavík in the north and went by horseback to Reykjavík. "Along the way, he absorbed the fantastic landscape, with its waterfalls and rugged fells." He met several friends, including the poet Matthías Jochumsson. Jón Sigurðsson himself, the leader of the Icelandic independence movement, wrote him a letter of introduction, which remains in the Fiske Collection.

A year later in Berlin, Fiske married Jenny McGraw, a young heiress Fiske knew from Ithaca, who was touring Europe in search of a cure for her tuberculosis; tragically, she died just after the married couple returned home in 1881. Fiske used the millions he inherited to buy more books, many of them about Iceland. He also endowed the Reykjavík Chess Club, founded the Icelandic chess magazing Í Uppnámi, and donated chess sets and books to the inhabitants of the island of Grimsey, whose story had impressed him when he was in Iceland (though he hadn’t visited Grimsey itself). He also bought a villa in Italy, where he spent the last two decades of his life.

Fiske playing chess in Italy c. 1900.
When Fiske died he was working on volume two of his history, Chess in Iceland and in Icelandic Literature. It was never published, but I've consulted volume one quite heavily while writing my current book, The Ivory Vikings, which argues that the world famous Lewis chessmen were carved in Iceland by a woman artist around the year 1200. I didn't have to visit the Fiske Icelandic Collection to read Fiske’s book—it’s now available on the Internet—but librarian Patrick Stevens graciously searched the archives to answer the many questions I emailed him. The technology may have changed, but the Fiske Icelandic Collection remains the library of my dreams. I'm proud to say it contains every one of my own books about Iceland.

To learn more about the Fiske Icelandic Collection, a good place to start is the website of Cornell's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Links from that page explain how to search the Cornell Library online for its Icelandic holdings, including books, letters, journals, and photographs, many of which can also be viewed online.

Photos here are courtesy of the Cornell University News Service and the Fiske Collection.


  1. Thanks for the link! Thanks to Mr. Fiske for his generosity and to Mr. Mitchell for his accommodation and to you for passing it all on.

  2. Beautifully written as always, Nancy. Your enthusiasm is the kind of engagement that inspires me to persevere in my work. The President of Iceland was most gracious during his visit, and clearly inspired as we are by the books on display. A major component of his time here was devoted to his promotion of energy sustainability, wherein Icelanders, with long experience in geothermal and hydroelectric resources, are leaders in the search for carbon-free, renewable options. (Ask the Chinese, Filipinos, Ethiopians, and others.) Daniel Willard Fiske would be awestruck and happy to know that poor, minuscule Iceland ranks among the most advanced nations in this critical scientific application--and still exports poetry, and symbolically, falcons.
    Warmest regards from Patrick

  3. Well, Nancy, you've captured the Fiske Collection perfectly. I visited it at length in the 1970s while writing "Norse Sagas Translated into English. A Bibliography." The staff dug out volumes tricky to find, and answered my most obscure bibliographical questions. It really gives an author confidence when you have that good a library behind you.
    Well done, Don

  4. Thanks for sharing, nice post! Post really provice useful information!

    An Thái Sơn với website chuyên sản phẩm máy đưa võng hay máy đưa võng tự động tốt cho bé là địa chỉ bán máy đưa võng giá rẻ tại TP.HCM và giúp bạn tìm máy đưa võng loại nào tốt nhất hiện nay.