The Son of Christopher Columbus and his Universal Library


Christopher Columbus is a household name to Americans, but his son deserves a place in history too.


Hernando Colón, illegitimate son of Columbus, was an explorer of a different kind. He sought to find and collect every book in the world, thus building a universal library and making knowledge available to everyone. Hernando accompanied his father on some voyages including his last disastrous trans-Atlantic voyage, but did not share his desire to circumnavigate the world. Instead he explored the world by traveling extensively in an attempt to collect all the written knowledge in it. Funded by his father’s New World wealth, he set out to accomplish this massive task. Though he never managed to completely reach this goal, partly because of the proliferation of inexpensive printing brought about by the printing press, he made a valiant effort.

Eventually, he acquired over 15,000 volumes and all manner of other printed material, including pictures, pamphlets, maps, music, early newspapers, from the important to the trivial, in many languages and all subjects. Even more remarkably, he hired hundreds of people to read every book in his library and distill it to a brief summary. This became the Libro de los Epítomes or Book of the Epitomes, and provided a way to make his immense library usable. As if the collecting and summarizing of all these books was not astonishing enough, Hernando also developed a complicated system of organizing his books into several sets of encyclopedias and inventories, even developing a card catalog of sorts. In effect, he had created the first search engine.

Sadly, more than 75% of his collection is lost. In fact, we know of the Book of Epitomies only because it was mentioned in an account by Colón’s last librarian. Then it disappeared after Hernando’s death in 1539 and was not heard of again for nearly 500 years, until April of this year, when it suddenly turned up in a library in Copenhagen. So how did it get lost and how was it found? The story of where it has been all this time is a little vague, but at some point it became part of the Arnamagnæan Collection, housed at the University of Copenhagen. This collection contains very few books that are not Icelandic manuscripts so Colón’s book was not of much interest to the Icelandic people. There it sat, hidden in plain sight, essentially misshelved all these years.

Apparently, the main reason the collector, Arni Magnusson, bought this manuscript is because he wanted some of the other manuscripts in this group.  In the meantime, Edward Wilson-Lee wrote a book about Hernando Colón and his library, a fascinating story even without the discovery of The Book of Epitomies. As the book got some attention, the library realized what they had. Perhaps the most exciting thing about this discovery is that many of the books that it summarizes are books that are lost in every other form. To the author, it was of course, the perfect surprise epilogue to his book, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, published less than a month before the discovery.

What happens now? The book itself could be described as a supersized coffee table book, about a foot thick and 2000 pages long, written in beautifully clear handwriting.  This is good news for the digitizing project that is currently underway. The original Latin will be translated into other languages – good news for the reader when it is made available to the public. It will most likely take 5-7 years to complete as it involves a lot of work identifying which books may still exist and which are lost in every other form. While you are waiting, why not read the full account of Hernando Colón’s amazing library in The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books by Edward Wilson-Lee. Though the library does not currently own it, you can request it through Interlibrary Loan, or read more about it at the links below:

Christopher Columbus’ Son Had An Enormous Library. Its Catalog Was Just Found

Canadian Historian Unearths the Long Lost Catalog of Hernando Colon’s Massive 16th Century Library

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