Overviews of the Collections
The Icelandic and Faroese Collections at the Library of Congress
Recommending Officer for Iceland and the Faroe Islands
Social Sciences Cataloging Division
The Icelanders have a saying that could serve as a motto above
the entrance to the Library of Congress: Blindur er bóklaus
maður. Blind is the man without books. All that this connotes
about Iceland is seldom evident in the travel brochures that depict
its geysers, glaciers, and other natural marvels, but it is reflected
in the enormous contribution to Western culture made by this small
nation on the fringes of European civilization. Five centuries
before Columbus set eyes on the New World, the Icelanders were
practicing a form of self-government based on law. By the fourteenth
century they had created a national literature of surpassing greatness;
and only eighty years after Gutenberg printed his first Bible the
printing press arrived on their shores. Indeed, in a stark, rough-hewn
land where nature has not yet finished her work, a man of letters,
Halldor Laxness, is the national hero.
The Icelandic collections of the Library of Congress include
more than four thousand titles, and reflect the country's rich
history, its contributions to European culture, and the many links
between Iceland and the United States.
years earlier, Jón Ólafsson's 1875 monograph Alaska, lýsing
á landi og lands-kostum (Alaska, Description of the Land
and its Conditions) was acquired. Eager to lure settlers to
the newly-acquired Alaska territory, the United States government
published this book as a guide for Icelanders wishing to test life
in a country similar in many ways to their own. Among the 2,500
items donated to the Library of Congress by William Dudley Foulke in the 1930s and held in the Manuscript Division is a vellum fragment
of an Icelandic-language version of the Tristram legend. Produced
in the late fifteenth century, this piece is the oldest and rarest
artifact in the Icelandic collection. Possibly the only work
in Icelandic ever printed by the Government Printing Office in
Washington, D.C., this monograph is an example of the unusual material
contained in the Library's Icelandic collection.
While the interests of the academic library are usually confined
to history and literature, the Library of Congress, in keeping
with its mission to serve the information needs of Congress and
of the nation, acquires books on almost every topic. Thus along
with the sagas and eddas LC obtains law books, art books, children's
books, parliamentary papers, and periodicals; genealogical works
and telephone, street, and business directories; technical reports
on animal husbandry, afforestation, climactic conditions, and volcanic
activity; statistics on fishing, health, and employment; necrologies,
population censuses, election results, rosters of diplomats, and
guidebooks to flora and fauna. Many of the Library's Icelandic
books and periodicals are government publications received through
exchange programs, and thus are not available at other libraries
in the United States. Moreover, the Library of Congress seeks not
only the printed word; its Icelandic collection also contains maps,
sheet music, sound recordings, photographs, videos and posters.
The cornerstone of every Icelandic library is Iceland's ancient
literature. In 1928 the Icelandic Medieval Texts Society (Hið
íslenska fornritfélag) was established for the purpose of publishing
a standard annotated edition of its literary treasures. Included
are the Íslendingabók, the Landnámabók, Heimskringla,
and the sagas. This project has been underway for more than six
decades, and the Library has in its collections all of the volumes
that so far have been published. In addition, LC has other editions
of these works and many scholarly books about them, including,
for example, nearly 150 editions of and critical works about the Edda
The highlight of the entire Icelandic collection may well be the
exquisite copy of the Landnámabók printed by Hendrick Kruse
in Skalholt in 1688. This book is said to be the first of the old
Icelandic histories printed in Iceland. Also in the rare book collection
is a 1774 edition of this same work printed in Denmark by A. F.
Stein. An interesting version of Njal's Saga is a Latin edition published in Copenhagen in 1809.
The LC also collects later Icelandic literature, focusing on the
best works from each period, from the devotional poetry of Hallgrímur
Pétursson and the travel narrative of Jon Indiafari in the seventeenth
century to the poems of Sjón, who was born in 1960. Since 1990
the Library has made efforts to acquire important works absent
from the collection and has added, for example, the Icelandic original
of Laxness' famous novel Íslandsklukkan (Iceland's Bell),
previously at LC only in French and Danish translations, as well
as Salka Valka and Sjálfstæt fólk (Independent People).
As the literary masterpieces of today are the classics of tomorrow,
the Library of Congress strives to obtain the best contemporary
prose and poetry while it is current and available. In the past
few years three Icelanders, Thor Vilhjálmsson, Friða Sigurðardóttir,
and Einar Mar Guðmundsson, have won the Nordic Council Prize for
Literature. Outstanding books also are being written by Einar Kárason
(the most widely-read author in Iceland today), Steinunn Sigurðardóttir,
and Vigdís Grímsdóttir. LC does not wait for these and other excellent
authors to make their mark outside of Iceland before it begins
to acquire their works. Readers interested in contemporary Icelandic
literature thus will find an extensive collection of contemporary
novels, poetry, and other works.
Scholars have argued over how much historical truth is contained
in the Medieval histories and family sagas of Iceland. At the Library
of Congress, these works are assigned the class letters PT--literature.
But bibliographic records for books such as Heimskringla and Lándnamabók also
carry history subject headings, thus making it difficult to assess
the size of LC's Icelandic history collection by computer subject-search
alone -- a difficulty compounded by the fact that works of history
cross topical lines and thus are scattered throughout the general
collection. Overall, it is estimated that LC has over three hundred
books that deal with some aspect of Icelandic history, even in
its more fanciful manifestations as in the Heimskringla of
Snorri Sturlason. A good number of these works are in Danish, German,
and English. Among the rarer books are a translation into German
of Eggert Ólafsson's and Bjarni Povelsen's scientific expedition
to Iceland, published in 1774, and Kristni-saga, sive Historia religionis christianæ in Islandiam introductæ (History of the
Church in Iceland), published in Copenhagen in 1773.
Of special interest to the historian are the voluminous official
papers of Iceland published as Annales islandici posteriorum saeculorum and Diplomatarium islandicum.
No people are more passionate than the Icelanders when it comes
to local and family history. Lineage from the settlement days to
the present is remarkably intact because every village in Iceland,
it seems, has its historian who in chronicling the events of his
village endeavors to account for every family. These historians
compile their annals in the spirit of their earliest ancestors
who wished to record for posterity the experiment of inhabiting
this island on the edge of the known world. As a national center
for genealogical research, the Library of Congress tries to acquire
all of these works. Readers interested in genealogical research
are likely to find two works especially useful: the six-volume Vestur-íslenzkar
Æviskrár (Biographical Dictionary of Icelandic Immigrants
to the United States and Canada) and the one-volume Vesturfaraskrá
1870-1914 (Icelandic Immigrants to the United States).
The Library of Congress is rich in Icelandic dictionaries, grammars,
and related reference works. About a hundred dictionaries are in
the collection, at least twelve of which are over a century old.
Included are the pioneering works by the Icelandic scholar Sveinbjörn
Egilsson. Taken as a group, these dictionaries reflect the broad
range of topics contained in LC's Icelandic collection. Along with
dictionaries of Old Norse and of modern Icelandic are dictionaries
of technical, scientific, and business terms. The crowning glory
of the Icelandic dictionary collection is a relatively recent acquisition, Íslensk
orðsifjabók, Ásgeir Blöndal Magnusson's monumental etymological
dictionary which will be the standard for years to come.
Many of the more than 150 Icelandic periodicals available at the
Library of Congress are technical or statistical government reports
received through the exchange program. They include the long-running
serials Hagskýrslur Íslands (Statistics of Iceland), Alþingistíðindi (Parliamentary
Gazette), and Stjórnartíðindi (Government Gazette).
LC has the very first issue (from 1827) and many other issues of
the venerable literary journal Skírnir, which is still being
published today. It also has an even older periodical, Rit Þess
Íslenzka lærdóms-lista félags, which ceased publication before
the turn of the nineteenth century. The Library of Congress currently
subscribes to a score of commercial magazines and to four newspapers: Morgunblaðið, Þjóðviljinn, Tíminn,
and - Alþýðulaðið.
The Law Library at the Library of Congress contains approximately
fifty titles and three hundred volumes on Icelandic law. They include
modern editions of the great Medieval works, Grágás, Jónsbók,
and Skarðsbók, as well as treatises on modern Icelandic
tax and constitutional law and Icelandic supreme court proceedings.
The Children's Literature Center at the Library of Congress has
collected many examples of Icelandic children's literature, including
dozens of picture and adolescent books. Prominent works in the
collection include Dimmalimm, the national classic, and all
of the works by Guðrún Helgadóttir, the leading author of contemporary
Icelandic children's literature and a member of the Icelandic parliament.
In 1986 an annual adolescent literature competition (Verðlaunasjóður
íslenskra barnabóka) was established to honor the most talented
practitioners of this genre, and the Library has a complete set
of the award-winning books.
Apart from the aforementioned 1688 printing of the Landnámabók and
a few others, the Rare Book Division of the Library does not have
major holdings of Icelandic rare books. It does, however, have
codecies in its collection that are twentieth century facsimile
editions published by Levin and Munksgaard of Copenhagen. The Library
does not have a copy of the Guðbrandsbiblia (Bishop Guðbrandur's
Bible) of 1587, a beautiful example of the art of early Icelandic
printing, but this work would rank high on any list of desiderata.
A recent addition to the LC rare book collection is a festschrift in honor of President Vigdis Finnbogadóttir that she presented
to the Library of Congress after her visit to LC in October 1994.
All materials in the Library of Congress relating to music (monographs,
serials, recordings, and sheet music) are in the custody of the
Music Division. This division's Icelandic holdings, although not
extensive, include important works. Among the half-dozen or so
books in various languages on Icelandic music is the giant -- in
both the literal and figurative sense -- Íslensk Þjóðlog of
Pastor Bjarni Þjorsteinsson, who spent many years in the final
decades of the nineteenth century traveling around Iceland gathering
folk songs. Published in Copenhagen in 1906, this seminal work
of almost a thousand pages is the centerpiece of LC's Icelandic
Among the sheet music in the Music Division are around fifty compositions
by Icelandic composers. Almost thirty of these belong to Jón Leifs,
Iceland's greatest name in twentieth century music. The abundance
of music scores by this versatile composer of international renown
can be explained by his celebrity; many of his compositions were
published in Germany. Music printed (and recorded) in Iceland is
usually more difficult to obtain, but the Library's sheet music
and sound recording collections have compositions by other important
Icelandic composers such as Fjölnir Stefánsson, Magnus Blöndal
Johannsson, and Gunnar Reynir Sveinsson.
The Geography and Map Division houses an amazing variety of Icelandic
maps. Among the approximately 150 maps of Iceland are road and
tourist maps, aeronautical charts, geological, bathymetric, climactic,
and Landsat maps; maps depicting dams, bus lines, administrative
districts, population, telephone lines, electric power distribution,
and fisheries. Other noteworthy items in the Geography and Map
Division are a plastic relief model of Iceland, Vincenzo Coronelli's
early map of Iceland (1690s), and the previously-mentioned three-volume historical atlas of Iceland.
The Library's Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound
Division (MBRS) has a number of items relating to Iceland's fledgling
commercial film industry. Icelandic movies have won awards at major
European film festivals, and in 1992 an Icelandic film won an Oscar
nomination for best foreign-language film. In 1994 MBRS acquired
on videocassette four Icelandic theatrical films. LC has on audiocassette
readings of several of the major Icelandic sagas and of the Passíusálmar of
Hallgrímur Pétursson, recorded in the church in Reykjavik named
in his honor.
In 1995 the Prints and Photographs Division received its very
first item from Iceland, a poster designed by children's author
and illustrator Áslaug Jónsdóttir for the Jónsmessuhatið (Midsummer
Day celebration) in the village of Hofsós in north Iceland.
The cultural contributions from the Faroe Islands, a semi- autonomous
Danish dependency of 43,000 inhabitants located between Iceland
and Scotland, are staggering in proportion to its size and astonishing
in light of the centuries of economic hardships that drove the
Faroese people to the verge of extinction. Under Danish rule the
Faroese faced an even greater challenge than the Icelanders in
keeping their unique culture alive.
Lacking a great body of Medieval literature in which to ground
their cultural identity, the people of the Faroe Islands had to
fight long and hard to elevate their language to an official status.
This was achieved only in the present century. Faroese literature
thus is still quite young.
The Library of Congress has around 200 books in Faroese, and another
200 books about the Faroe Islands in other languages, mainly Danish.
The holdings have more than tripled in size since 1990. Included
in the collection are reference, law, and children's books, and
periodicals. Among the books are several key titles: V.U. Hammershaimb's Færøsk
anthologi, an accumulation of folk ballads and a grammar which
became the foundation of modern written Faroese; a facsimile edition
of Bábelstornið (The Tower of Babel) by Rasmus Rasmussen
(Regin í Líð), considered the first novel in Faroese (1906); the
poet Christian Matras' Føroysk-donsk orøabók (Faroese-Danish dictionary); Mikkjal a Ryggi's
1940 classic of local history, Miðvinga søga; Arni Dahl's
three-volume history of Faroese literature to the 1970s; Heðin
Brú's novel Feðgar á ferð (Father and Son); Jens
Pauli Heinesen's youthful masterpiece Tú upphavsins heimur (The
Origin of the World); and, finally, an original edition from
1673 of Lucas Debes' famous travel narrative in Danish about the
Faroe Islands, Færoæ et Færoa reserata, the rarest book
in the Library's Faroese collection.
The Library of Congress is beginning to obtain the works of contemporary
poets and novelists. It recently acquired books by the poet Alexandur
Kristiansen, Steinbjørn Jacobsen, the Faroese national librarian
Martin Næs, Hanus Andreassen, Marianna Debes Dahl, Jens Pauli
Heinesen, and the late Reverend Kristian Viderø. Many of these
books were purchased from the authors themselves.
William Heinesen, the most important figure in Faroese culture,
is well-represented at the Library of Congress. Often mentioned
as a candidate for the Nobel Prize, Heinesen is the Faroese counterpart
to Halldor Laxness in Iceland. Although he wrote primarily in Danish,
he is noted here because of his stature in his country, his influence
on Faroese culture, and because he wrote so lovingly and perceptively
about his home. The Library has most of his works, as well as works
by his friend Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen, a Faroe Islander who also
chose to write in Danish.
In 1996 the Library of Congress became one of the very few foreign
exchange partners with the National Library of the Faroe Islands.
Under the exchange agreement, LC receives the same titles that
are sent by the national library to Faroese public libraries.
Each August the Tørshavn Jazz, Folk, and Blues Festival attracts
musicians from Europe and North America for a week of jamming.
Since its inaugural session in 1983, the festival has been celebrated
with posters designed by a Faroese or Nordic artist. The jazz poster
in itself has become a tradition, and the Library of Congress has
managed to obtain most of these items. Another notable Faroese
poster in the LC collection is the disarmament poster depicting
a mother holding her child by artist Oliver við Neyst.
Additional Icelandic resources at the Library of Congress: