A 16th Century “Database” of Every Book in the World Gets Unearthed: Discover the Libro de los Epítomes Assembled by Christopher Columbus’ Son

The 16th cen­tu­ry was a thrilling time for books, at least for those who could afford them: build­ing a respectable per­son­al library (even if it did­n’t include nov­el­ties like the books that open six dif­fer­ent ways and the wheels that made it pos­si­ble to rotate through many open books at once) took seri­ous resources. Her­nan­do Colón, the ille­git­i­mate son of Christo­pher Colum­bus, seems to have com­mand­ed such resources: as The Guardian’s Ali­son Flood writes, he “made it his life’s work to cre­ate the biggest library the world had ever known in the ear­ly part of the 16th cen­tu­ry. Run­ning to around 15,000 vol­umes, the library was put togeth­er dur­ing Colón’s exten­sive trav­els” and ulti­mate­ly con­tained every­thing from the works of Pla­to to posters pulled from tav­ern walls.

Alas, this ambi­tious library, meant to encom­pass all lan­guages, cul­tures, and forms of writ­ing, is now most­ly lost. “After Colón’s death in 1539, his mas­sive col­lec­tion ulti­mate­ly end­ed up in the Seville Cathe­dral, where neglect, sticky-fin­gered bib­lio­philes, and the occa­sion­al flood reduced the library to just 4,000 vol­umes over the cen­turies,” writes Smithsonian.com’s Jason Daley. But we now know what it con­tained, thanks to the dis­cov­ery just this year of the Libro de los Epí­tomes, or “Book of Epit­o­mes,” the library’s foot-thick cat­a­log that not only lists the vol­umes it con­tained but describes them as well. “Colón employed a team of writ­ers to read every book in the library and dis­till each into a lit­tle sum­ma­ry in Libro de los Epí­tomes,” Flood writes, “rang­ing from a cou­ple of lines long for very short texts to about 30 pages for the com­plete works of Pla­to.”

The Libro de los Epí­tomes turned up ear­li­er this year in anoth­er col­lec­tion, that of an Ice­landic schol­ar by the name of Árni Mag­nús­son who left his books to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Copen­hagen when he died in 1730. Few­er than 30 of the 3,000 texts in Mag­nús­son’s most­ly Ice­landic and oth­er Scan­di­na­vian-lan­guage col­lec­tion (detailed images of which you can see at Type­r­oom) are writ­ten in Span­ish, which per­haps explains why the Libro de los Epí­tomes went over­looked for more than 350 years. Redis­cov­ered, it now offers a wealth of infor­ma­tion on thou­sands and thou­sands of books from five-cen­turies ago, many of which have long since passed out of exis­tence.

Colón’s unique­ly exhaus­tive library cat­a­log opens a win­dow onto not just what 16th-cen­tu­ry Euro­peans were read­ing, but how they were read­ing — and how the very nature of read­ing was evolv­ing. “This was some­one who was, in a way, chang­ing the mod­el of what knowl­edge is,” Daley quotes Colón’s biog­ra­ph­er Edward Wil­son-Lee as observ­ing. “Instead of say­ing ‘knowl­edge is august, author­i­ta­tive things by some ven­er­a­ble old Roman and Greek peo­ple,’ he’s doing it induc­tive­ly: tak­ing every­thing that every­one knows and dis­till­ing it upwards from there.” The com­par­isons to “big data and Wikipedia and crowd­sourced infor­ma­tion” almost make them­selves, as do the ref­er­ences to a cer­tain 20th-cen­tu­ry Span­ish-lan­guage writer with an inter­est in his­to­ry, lan­guage, and knowl­edge as rep­re­sent­ed in books extant and oth­er­wise. If the Libro de los Epí­tomes did­n’t exist, Jorge Luis Borges would have had to invent it.

via the Guardian

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Rise and Fall of the Great Library of Alexan­dria: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

What Does Jorge Luis Borges’ “Library of Babel” Look Like? An Accu­rate Illus­tra­tion Cre­at­ed with 3D Mod­el­ing Soft­ware

Vis­it The Online Library of Babel: New Web Site Turns Borges’ “Library of Babel” Into a Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty

A Medieval Book That Opens Six Dif­fer­ent Ways, Reveal­ing Six Dif­fer­ent Books in One

Behold the “Book Wheel”: The Renais­sance Inven­tion Cre­at­ed to Make Books Portable & Help Schol­ars Study (1588)

Watch Umber­to Eco Walk Through His Immense Pri­vate Library: It Goes On, and On, and On!

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Soumya Aravind Sitaraman says:

    I would cau­tion against grand head­lines like “Every book in the world.” The Nalan­da uni­ver­si­ty, Tax­i­la Uni­ver­si­ty and Kanchi Uni­ver­si­ties had thou­sands of books unknown to this man! The world had so many books and records he had nev­er seen!

  • romepix says:

    Why do you block peo­ple on twit­ter for minor infrac­tions like a woman not agree­ing with you but being incred­i­bly polite about it? And then block mutu­al friends who had no inter­ac­tion with your account?

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.