Jan. 26, 2006

Fables, Lavoisier and Shaw: Alumni gifts and acquisitions enrich rare and manuscript collections

chromolithograph by V. Timorev
Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections
This chromolithograph by V. Timorev is from Ivan Andreevich Krylov's "Two Fables" (1913), a gift of Jon A. and Virginia Lindseth.
Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections
This 1912 note is part of an archive the library recently acquired of more than 180 letters, notes and postcards written by George Bernard Shaw to his secretary.

Today's researchers depend as much on access to rare books, manuscripts and other archival materials as to new books by contemporary scholars and the latest scientific journals and digital resources. Last year Cornell University Library (CUL) added more than 108,000 books and other printed volumes and 1,265 cubic feet of manuscripts to its holdings. It's Hobson's choice to single out the most significant new acquisitions, but here are three examples that provide a glimpse of the wide range of treasures to be found in Cornell's rare and manuscript collections.

Lindseth Russian Fable Collection

Last fall, alumni Jon and Virginia Lindseth (both Class of 1956) gave the library a spectacular collection of Russian fable literature. The collection includes more than 2,500 items published over three centuries and offers scholars and students an unparalleled view of the development of this genre.

Fables, which use humor, satire and anthropomorphism to tell dramatic tales with a moral message, first appeared in Greek literature during the 8th century B.C. These short stories have been employed to poke fun at human frailties, convey political messages and to teach the young moral lessons on ethics, religion or statehood.

The Lindseth Russian Fable Collection is important not only for the light it sheds on the history of fable literature as a whole, but for its illumination of the cultural, political and religious aspects of life in Russia from the beginning of the 18th century through the end of the 20th century.

The collection contains the earliest Russian-language versions of the fables of the ancient world, including the oldest printed Russian translation of "Aesop's Fables," published in Amsterdam in 1700; the first edition in Russian of Bidpai's fables (1762); and the first edition in Russian of "Phaedrus," published in St. Petersburg in 1764.

The collection also contains the earliest printings of original stories written by Russian authors. There is a first edition of poetic fables by Alexsander Petrovich Sumarokov, the creator of the Russian fable as a national and original genre, published 1762-1769 in St. Petersburg. The entire history of the fable genre in Russia is chronicled in the Lindseth collection, from the works of I.A. Krylov, who is widely considered to be one of Russia's greatest poets and fabulists, to multiple Russian interpretations and translations of the fables of Western authors, to early 20th-century Russian fabulists who addressed overtly revolutionary themes, and the work of Sergei Mikhalkov, who employed fables in the Cold War era to ridicule the external enemies of the Soviet Union.

Many of the items in the Lindseth collection are scarce, and in some instances represent the only copies outside of Russia. "Scholars owe an enormous debt to collectors like Jon Lindseth," says Katherine Reagan, the library's curator of rare books and manuscripts. "New knowledge depends upon the creativity, imagination and hard work of collectors like Jon, who are willing to scour the world to locate and collect important, scarce and fragile materials -- especially those that document topics off the more commonly trod collecting paths."

For more information about the Lindseth Russian Fable Collection, contact Reagan at (607) 255-3530 or e-mail kr33@cornell.edu.

The Lavoisier Collection

Since the early 1960s, CUL has been home to the largest collection outside of Paris of material by and about Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, the 18th-century French scientist known as the father of modern chemistry. Thanks to gifts from several generous donors, the library has now acquired hundreds more books and manuscripts. Lavoisier (1743-1794) developed the basic nomenclature and theoretical structure of chemistry as we know it today. After his death at the guillotine during the height of the French Revolution, his widow spent years assembling and preserving material related to his life and work. When she died in 1836, the collection was passed down through her brother's family. Beginning in the 1850s, her descendents began to disperse that material, and in 1956 what remained from Madame Lavoisier's collection was sold at public auction in Paris. The bulk of the material dispersed in that sale, including hundreds of manuscripts and more than 600 volumes from Lavoisier's personal library, became the nucleus of the collection Cornell later acquired in 1962.

The core of the private collection CUL recently acquired is the other "half" of Madame Lavoisier's collection that had been earlier dispersed. It includes hundreds of pages of additional manuscripts and every printed item not already held by Cornell. Perhaps the most exciting addition is Madame Lavoisier's personal copy of what is arguably the most famous chemistry treatise ever published: her husband's 1789 Traité Élémentaire de Chimie. Illustrated by Madame Lavoisier herself and bound in her distinctive personal style, this unique volume has particular significance for students and scholars of the history of science.

Among the historic manuscripts are numerous letters to and from Lavoisier and his scientific colleagues, many of which have never been published. There is also correspondence to and from Madame Lavoisier, including a 1788 letter in which she recounts an explosion in the couple's laboratory that nearly killed them both.

Many other items in the new acquisition provide insight into the social and political unrest surrounding the French Revolution. The most dramatic example is a two-volume diary kept by Lavoisier's colleague Auguste Denis Fougeroux de Bondaroy, in which he meticulously recorded daily observations of events in the streets of Paris in the days immediately preceding and immediately following the fall of the Bastille in July 1789.

For more information about the Lavoisier Collection, contact David Corson, curator of the library's History of Science Collections, at (607) 255-5477 or e-mail dwc4@cornell.edu.

George Bernard Shaw Collection

CUL recently purchased a rich archive of correspondence between George Bernard Shaw and his secretary, Ann Elder Jackson (1892-1992). The acquisition of the collection from the Jackson estate was made possible by gifts from Stephan Loewentheil, J.D. '75, his wife, Beth Farber '77, and Bernard F. Burgunder Jr. '50.

The Jackson collection includes more than 180 autographed letters, notes and postcards from Shaw to his secretary. The letters, some in the writer's distinctive shorthand, give insight into Shaw's daily working routines, as he continually wrote to Jackson with instructions and queries during his trips around England and abroad. There are also letters from Shaw's wife, sister and other family members, as well as his close friends.

Other highlights include sketches, press clippings and drafts of letters to be sent; handwritten itineraries giving details of the author's journeys abroad, first nights of plays, lectures, electioneering speeches and formal dinners. The collection also contains Shaw's writing case and a number of photographs and portraits, including a miniature of his first lover, Jenny Patterson.

For more information about the Shaw Collection, contact Katherine Reagan at (607) 255-3530 or e-mail kr33@cornell.edu.

Elizabeth Fontana is the communications manager for Cornell University Library.