News 1/1999



A.E. Nordenskiöld Collection included in the Unesco Memory of the World Program

Maire Aho

Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld's (1832-1901) large library (400 shelfmeters) is housed in Helsinki University Library. It is the largest special collection in the Library and many specialists in the field visit the library collected by a pioneer in the history of cartography. The collection gives a splendid picture of the development of the early European map production. Nordenskiöld was very orderly in acquiring the maps and this characteristic explains the exceptional quality of the map-collection, which was selected to the Memory of the World Register in 1997.

A. E. Nordenskiöld

Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld (1832-1901) was born in Finland, on the Frugård mansion. His father was a famous mineralogist and Nordenskiöld grew up in touch with the latest developments of the discipline from his early years. He followed his father on long field trips to collect minerals and got acquinted with the geology of Finland. At the Royal Alexander University of Finland he studied mathematics, chemistry, mineralogy and geology. Nordenskiöld gained his doctorate in 1855. A couple of years later he was offered the Chair of Geology and Mineralogy at the University. But he had got himself into difficulties - some of his speeches irritated the Russian authorities of The Grand Duchy of Finland. So it was a wise idea to leave for Sweden where he worked with the mineral collection of the Swedish Museum of Natural Sciences. During these years (1857-58) he participated in his first voyage of arctic exploration to Spitzbergen. Nordenskiöld was received in Sweden favourably, but despite of this he continually longed to return home to Finland. First political reasons made the return impossible and later he was too involved in his work in Sweden to consider a return.

Nordenskiöld gained his worldwide fame as a result of his ten expeditions to the Arctic. The period from 1858 to 1904 was the golden age of Swedish polar exploration. The expeditions provided Sweden with unique materials for further scientific study. Nordenskiöld's expeditions had always scientific value. A team of natural scientists,equipped with up-to-date research instruments, was always a part of his crew. Accounts of the expeditions were published with exact and often large scientific data, like for instance the publication of the Vega voyage materials.

North-East Passage

Nordenskiöld studied many travel reports and accounts made by travellers or even fishermen of the remote waters. He prepared a thorough plan to sail through the North-East passage. The plan was presented to King Oscar II, who as a naval officer was interested in Nordenskiöld's expeditions. And after all Nordenskiöld had three financial guarantees for his expedition to the northern sea way to the Pacific: King Oscar II, Oscar Dickson and Alexander Sibirjakov.

The whaling-ship Vega was equipped to be the flag-ship of the expedition with a crew of 30 men. During the voyage observations were made and data collected, also maps were corrected. Very successful from the point of scientific view turned out the long stay in front of Pitlekai. According to his plan Nordenskiöld sailed close to the shore - and got stuck in the ice. An enormous amount of scientific data was collected from the arctic part of Asia during this "unlucky stay". The same level in the study of the region was reached only in the 1930s when the Soviet Union organized expeditions to the area.

Vegas färd kring Asien och Europa, the large two-part account of the expedition came out in 1880-81. It was translated into ten languages and brought Nordenskiöld a world-wide literary reputation. The work is said to be one of the best descriptions of a scientific expedition written ever.

Maps and Books

Nordenskiöld's interest in maps started during the expeditions to Spitzbergen.

After Vega's voyage Nordenskiöld concentrated on the study and systematic acquisition of geographic and cartographic literature. He spent the royalties of the large expedition account on books and maps and also used other works in his private collections as exchange material. His main interest was literature from the 15th and 16th centuries and the collection is specially exhaustive when regarding the literature printed before 1700, and as a Scandinavian he felt drawn towards the maps of the Northern areas.

The Nordenskiöld Collection contains:

  • Ptolemy ; the set of different editions is almost complete (51 examples)
  • 123 incunabula (books printed before 1500)
  • earliest literature about the American continent, about 80 works
  • first editions of maps
  • manuscripts
  • geographic literature
  • about 24 000 maps printed before 1800
  • literature in Greenlandic and Icelandic

The collection gives a splendid picture of the development of the early European map production. Nordenskiöld was very orderly in acquiring the maps and this characteristic explains the exceptional quality of the map-collection, which was nominated to the Memory of the World Register by UNESCO in 1997.

The Nordenskiöld Collection in Helsinki

Nordenskiöld's unique collection has been in the possession of Helsinki University Library since 1902. For unknown reasons Nordenskiöld decided to sell his remarkable library, but only undivided. It soon became evident that no purchaser neither from abroad nor from Sweden would be found. Nordenskiöld turned his gaze to Finland. He knew that the collections of cartographic literature were not very rich in Finland. There it would be rather convenient for him to use the library. However, nothing was done along this line, before Nordensköld passed away. An old friend of Nordenskiöld, Professor J. A. Palmén from Helsinki energetically took up the matter. Professor Leo Mechelin, who was staying in Stockholm at the time, conducted the negotiations with Anna Nordenskiöld. The University of Finland dealt quickly with the proposals put forward by activists in the matter and signed the decision to make the purchase 12.12.1901. The University paid part of the costs from its own funds, the major part of the sum was however to be obtained from the state. The proposal had the support of the Finnish Senate and the Tsar agreed to the University's request.

The conditions of the sale were agreed upon in addition to the price and can be summarized as follows:

  • the collection was to be preserved as a whole
  • the disposal of any of its items was strictly forbidden
  • it was to be known as Adolf Nordenskiöld Collection
  • the collection was to be open to scholars from Sweden
    and elsewhere, not only to Finns
  • a printed catalogue of the collection was to be prepared and published

The Nordenskiöld Library arrived in Helsinki complete with a card catalogue. In Finland the collection was reorganized and a new catalogue was announced in the Annual Report of the University 1916 to be ready for printing. The First World War and the declaration of Finland's independence 1917 postponed the printing. During the Second World War the collection was moved for safety. When it returned the revision of the catalogue continued slowly. The cataloguing started again in 1968, but meanwhile the cataloguing system had changed.

The catalogue in four large volumes was published in the years 1979-1989. It was completed with an analytical volume containing several indexes. This fifth volume was published in 1995.

Nordenskiöld´s large library (400 shelfmeters) is now housed in Helsinki University Library. It is the largest special collection in the Library and many specialists in the field visit the library collected by a pioneer in the history of cartography.

Maire Aho, Librarian
Helsinki University Library - The National Library of Finland
Email: Maire.Aho@helsinki.fi

Literature on the A. E. Nordenskiöld Collection

Häkli, Esko, A.E. Nordenskiöld. A Scientist and his Library. Helsinki, 1980. 80 pp.

Häkli, Esko. The A.E. Nordenskiöld Collection in Helsinki: Formation and composition. In: Papers of the Nordenskiöld seminar on the history of cartography and the maintenance of cartographic archives. Espoo (Finland), September 12-15. 1979. Ed. by Kerkko Hakulinen and Arvo Peltonen. Helsinki, 1981. pp. 19-28

Kish, Geroge. Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld (1832-1901) historian of science and bibliophile. In: Biblis (Stockholm), 1968. pp. 171183.

Marshall, Douglas. The Formation of a Nineteenth-Century Map Collection: A.E. Nordenskiöld of Helsinki. In: Map Collector (Tring), Dec. 1982. pp. 14-19.

Mickwitz, Ann-Mari. Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld and his Library. In: GeoJournal (Wiesbaden), 1979, nos. 3-4. pp. 395-398.

Mickwitz, Ann-Mari. Dear Mr. Nordenskiöld, your offer is accepted! In: Map librarian in the modern world: Essays in honour of Walter W. Ristow. Ed. by

Helen Wallis & Lothar Zögner. New York & München, 1979. pp. 221-235.

Mickwitz, Ann-Mari. Några bokhistoriska anteckningar om Nordenskiölds bibliotek. In: Nordenskiöld-samfundets tidskrift (Helsingfors), 1974. pp. 3-19.

The A.E. Nordensköld Collection in the Helsinki University Library. Annotated catalogue of maps made up to 1800. 1-5:2. By Ann-Mari Mickwitz, Leena Miekkavaara, Tuula Rantanen, Cecilia af Forselles-Riska. Helsinki, 1979-1995. XXVIII + 250, 324, 253, 371, 360, 251 pp.

Nordenskiöld, A.E. Facsimile-Atlas to the early history of cartography with reproductions of the most important maps printed in the XV and XVI centuries. Stockholm, 1889.

Pärssinen, Leena. The A.E. Nordenskiöld Collection of cartographic and geographical literature. In: The Northeast Passage from the Vikings to Nordenskiöld. Ed. Nils-Erik Raurala. Helsinki, 1992. pp. 206-226.

Tietolinja News 1/1999