Collection History

Cornell University’s rare book and manuscript collections date from the founding of the University in 1865. Andrew Dickson White, Cornell’s co-founder and first president, was a life-long book collector who believed that deep collections of primary resources are central to scholarship and teaching. Thanks to White and his first University Librarian, Willard Fiske, the collections grew dramatically in Cornell’s early years. Donated in 1891, White’s own collection of more than 30,000 volumes reflected his interests in architecture, science, religion, and European and American history. Due in large part to White’s collecting passions, today Cornell University Library features the largest collection on the French Revolution outside of Paris, the largest collection in North American on European witchcraft, America’s founding collection on the Abolitionist movement, and one of the country’s leading History of Science Collections. White’s gift was followed by those of Willard Fiske, who donated his collections on Iceland, Dante and Petrarch.

Cornell’s rare book and manuscript collections expanded in the twentieth century to include the world’s second largest collection on William Wordsworth, the Burgunder Collection of George Bernard Shaw, the Nicholas H. Noyes collection of Americana, including a copy of the Gettysburg Address in the hand of Abraham Lincoln, along with the papers of Lafayette, Antoine Lavoisier, James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis, and E.B. White, to name only a few. In 1942 a collection of regional history was created to document everyday life in upstate New York. Cornell’s Department of Rare Books (including literary and historical manuscripts) was created in 1951. With the acquisition of Ezra Cornell’s papers in 1945, a university archives collecting program was initiated, followed by the official establishment of the Cornell University Archives in 1951. These programs and departments were folded under the administrative management of the newly created Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections in 1991, along with Cornell Library’s History of Science Collections (established 1961) and the Library’s Icelandic Collection.

Cornell’s special collections experienced another major period of expansion from the 1980s onward, with the establishment of the Human Sexuality Collection (1988), the building of the Carl A. Kroch Library for special collections (1992), the establishment of the Eastern Wine and Grape Archive (1998), the acquisition of the Huntington Free Library Native American Collection (2003), and the arrival of nationally significant collections on the history of women suffrage, hip hop culture, the history of photography, and many others. Today, Cornell’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections includes 500,000 rare books and more than eighty million manuscripts, photographs, prints, and artifacts.

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