Founding Collections

Willard Fiske

Willard Fiske
Willard Fiske, ca. 1900

Cornell’s first President, Andrew Dickson White, chose his friend Willard Fiske to become Cornell University’s first Librarian. Fiske proved an ideal candidate for the role. He was not only a talented linguist and bibliophile, but had served for seven years as the assistant librarian to Joseph Green Cogswell at the Astor Library in New York City (now part of the New York Public Library). Cogswell, an early pioneer in many of the modern fundamentals of librarianship, influenced Fiske’s career at Cornell.

Fiske’s talents as a dedicated bibliophile and collector were the guiding force behind the library’s growth during its early years of development. His collection on Iceland, still the largest in North America, was the product of five decades of collecting. His collections on Dante and Petrarch, developed during the 1880s and 1890s, are recognized as among the finest ever assembled. By donating selections and later bequeathing these collections to Cornell, Fiske gave the University a gift worth more than thirty million in today’s dollars.

Francesco Petrarca. Trionfi, sonnetti e canzoni Italy (Florence), ca. 1465-70.

Written in a fine humanistic hand and superbly decorated, this vellum manuscript of Petrarch’s poems—triumphs, sonnets and lyrics—is just one of the nearly 1600 items in the Petrarch collection assembled by Willard Fiske and bequeathed to Cornell University Library in 1904.

View a photo of this exhibition case

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