Cornell’s collection of Icelandic and Old Norse literature is one of the three largest in the world. It was founded by Willard Fiske, who in the early 1850s sojourned in Scandinavia. Fiske later became Cornell’s first university librarian, and bequeathed his collection—by then much expanded—to the university. It arrived at Cornell in 1904.
The Fiske Icelandic Collection contains hundreds of nineteenth-century volumes that describe and depict in text and images the travels of antiquarians, scientists, and missionaries through the rugged and hazardous island. Geysers and geothermal springs are inevitably pictured, often alongside figures—stand-ins for the author and the reader—who point out these dramatic manifestations of the land’s volcanic activity to one another.
The collection also contains almost four hundred printed-out photographs made in the late 1890s by the British traveler Frederick W. W. Howell, who apparently took up photography after the publication of his first book on Iceland, Icelandic Pictures: Drawn With Pen and Pencil. Working with the commercially produced, pre-sensitized gelatin dry-plate negatives that were widespread at the end of the century, Howell had a much easier time than his predecessors, who had had to sensitize their plates themselves and on the spot. Howell’s accomplished single images and panoramas formed an astonishing photographic record—even if technological realities meant that Howell’s representations of the country’s famous geysers could not approach the drama or precision of those in the earlier engravings.