The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, by Edward Wilson-Lee

When I was a library school student, I recall learning about faceted classification and the complexities of organizing large amounts of information. The more information in the pile, the harder is to organize them in a way that makes it easier for others to find information. For example, if you have a group of novels, do you organize them by subject, mood, alphabetically, chronologically, by size? We learned about librarians from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who tackled these problems and gave us the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress Classification System. But, as I read Edward Wilson-Lee’s deeply erudite book The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, I learned that none other than the son of Christopher Columbus wrestled with these very questions in his quest to create a universal library in the first half of the sixteenth century.

Hernando Colón (better known in English, if not in Wilson-Lee’s book, as Ferdinand Columbus) was the illegitimate younger son of Columbus and, among other achievements, is the author of a lost biography of his father that did a lot to shape his father’s image and legacy for centuries—at least until historians and indigenous advocates reminded us of the terrible, genocidal toll* of Columbus’ actions. The beginning and the end of The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books focus on Colón’s efforts to build his father’s reputation as a hero of exploration and secure the riches and titles that were promised to himself and his older, legitimate brother as a result of Columbus’ discoveries. Though Colón helped his father with the bizarre Book of Prophecies—a collection of quotations from religious and literary works that somehow proved Columbus’ divine destiny but mostly reveals Columbus’ loosening grasp on reality—he later worked to create a rigorously documented biography.

Undated portrait of Hernando Colón (Image via Wikicommons)

This may sound dry and only possessing a niche appeal for librarians, especially cataloguers. But I found it fascinating as a history of ideas. During Colón’s time, book collectors and researchers are highly selective. They tended to only collect works of theology in Latin and Greek, possibly Hebrew. Others might collect books about medicine or the natural sciences but, again, usually only books deemed canonical and orthodox. These libraries were easy to organize. Colón’s library, however, was a blizzard of paper. Because he couldn’t classify it using traditional schemas, Colón had to think of something new. Edward-Lee describes Colón’s thought process in detail as the collector wrestled with issues that we librarians are only just now starting to solve using algorithm-based search engines. Colón’s big problem was how to find a piece of information when the reader is not sure where it is or even if it exists—a question that is very familiar to librarians.

The middle part of The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books was the most interesting to me. It deals with Colón’s efforts to build a massive library that would contain as much printed matter as possible and then organize it into a system that would allow researchers to find any useful piece of information in that library. By the end of his life, Colón had acquired more than fifteen thousand books, printed images, and pamphlets. Because there were more books than anyone could remember, Colón himself and his assistants worked on summarizes and a classification system that strongly reminded me of the efforts to create a faceted classification system that I had read about in library school. Colón, we learn, was an iconoclast because he wanted to collect everything he could get his hands on. He didn’t want just the books prescribed by the great collectors and thinkers of his time. He didn’t want just want the big booksellers included. He really did want everything, especially texts printed by smaller publishers.

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books—named for a shipment of over 1,000 printed texts bought by Colón that was lost at sea—is great tour of the intellectual world of the late 1400s and early 1500s. Edward-Lee makes a few odd choices, such as constantly calling Colón Hernando instead of Ferdinand Columbus, and once calls Christopher Columbus the first European to lay eyes on the Americas**. But aside from these quibbles, I learned a great deal from this book and have so much food for thought that I know I am already going to recommend this to my cataloguing friends.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.


*New research has shown that so many indigenous people died as a result of European contact that it changed the climate.
**Vikings got to Canada centuries before Columbus hit the West Indies.

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