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Overviews of the Collections

The Icelandic and Faroese Collections at the Library of Congress

Robert Roth
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.

John Olafsson's 1875 monograph on Alaska.Sixty 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 Sæmundar alone.

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 music collection.

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.

Faroese Holdings

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:

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  November 26, 2019
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