Hernando Colón: Hernando Colón: the creator of the first modern library | Babelia

Hernando Colón (1488-1539), illegitimate son and biographer of the admiral, was far from unknown to Spanish scholars, but his existence for the general public will have much to thank this work of a british researcher.

Endowed with a novelesque life (when he was 13 years old he accompanied Christopher Columbus on his fourth trip), part of his notoriety comes from his compilation and classification of books and prints. Throughout his life, and on trips throughout Europe, Hernando bought all kinds of works; books, but also booklets and flying leaves: ballads, erotic stories and astrological forecasts: the whole motley set that a young printing press was vomiting endlessly. Some 15,000 pieces came to treasure this library: the largest private in 16th-century Europe. Hernando Colón invested part of his father's legacy, donations from Carlos V - of whom he was an advisor - and endless efforts to increase the number of his works.

The organization of his books meant a whole conceptual revolution. Hernando wrote down where he bought each work, on what date and how much it had cost. He made alphabetical lists by author's name. Created symbols (bibliographies) which summarized the bibliographic description: size, length, gender, original language or translation ... Thus, a circle with a cross and a triangle attached to a square indicated a fourth book, in Latin, with introductory poems, in a column and without indexes .

Hernando Colón: the creator of the first modern library

Finally, he commissioned his assistants to write summaries of his books, including judgments about the style: cumbersome, elegant ... Some were brief, of a paragraph; others, like Plato's works, came to occupy 30 pages. Set, Book of epitomes, it reached 16 volumes of about 2,000 pages. He also organized a system of “keys” (the Book of subjects) which allowed access to works that dealt with a certain subject. The last instrument he created was the Table of authors and sciences, organized in 10,000 pieces of paper (today we would say "tokens") according to the medieval categories of trivium and the quadrivium, more medicine, theology and law, with all its subdivisions. Each file had title, author, subject, the biblioglyph and details of the publication. In this way, a person could make his way into a virtually universal library (since he incorporated Arabic and Hebrew texts) until he found the book he needed, even if he did not previously know its existence. In addition, the abstracts allowed partial access to the content without consulting the work.

Seen with current eyes, when an alphabetical classification of authors or titles is somewhat trivial, we can underestimate these achievements, but let us think that medieval classifications were not usually formal, but ideological: the word Soaring would figure before abyss, for example. Abstracts already existed in medieval works, although for other purposes. There were already indexes of works, since the time of the manuscripts (Hernando produced one of 3,000 terms for From rerum natura), but they did not cover a set of works. Today, when we can search for a certain word inside millions of books, and instantly access many of them, we can only imagine the information revolution that the admiral's son undertook.

Purchases of engravings (of which it would have 3,200) also required the development of classification systems. So that its agents knew if a certain image was already in the collection, Columbus created labels for the size of the paper and the theme (humans, animals, objects ...); Humans were subdivided according to the number of people who appeared, sex, their character as saints or lay people, and whether they were dressed or naked. In addition, there was a hierarchy of labels: an engraving was classified as "human" even if there was only one surrounded by animals, and as "man" although women also appeared.

With 15,000 documents, including Arabic and Hebrew texts, their funds were virtually universal

Let's talk about losses: the "wrecked books" of the title are a cargo of 1,637 works that sank with the ship that transported them to Spain. But older was the shipwreck of the following five centuries. The 15,000 books that constituted the immense library that he had built in Seville were stored in his cathedral, where many were lost, damaged or stolen, to the point that now there are only about 4,000 left. The collection of prints and prints was completely lost. But there are also findings: one of the missing volumes of the Book of epitomes It was recently found in Copenhagen, novelly hidden among a collection of Icelandic works.

Wilson-Lee fascinates Hernando's biography with fascination, in which he discovers many of the keys that led to his classifying thinking. The formation of his library occupies, of course, much of the work, but also addresses his careful education and his pioneering action on issues as different as the discovery of magnetic declination, advances in cartography and navigation, a Description of Spain villa by villa, astronomical and botanical observations, and an unfinished Latin dictionary. The play, very enjoyable, has bright and colorful moments, such as the description of Rome (the Rome of The Andalusian apple!). It belongs, as The turn. How a forgotten manuscript helped create the modern world, Stephen Greenblatt (Criticism), to the genre of high disclosure, which is doing so much to change the way we look at the rich years of the Renaissance.

Wrecked books memorial. Edward Wilson-Lee. Translation by María Dolores Ábalos. Ariel, 2019. 444 pages. 21.90 euros.


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