At the nucleus of the Department of Special Collections (formerly the Rare Book Department) in Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the Chester H. Thordarson Collection, acquired by the University soon after World War II. This rich collection is well known for its "elephant folio" edition of Audubonís Birds of America. It also features a complete set of Gouldís monographs on birds of the world, lavish RiviŤre bindings, long runs of English almanacs beginning in the early 17th century, and many Icelandic titles, as well as rare works in other fields.
Born Hjörtur Thórdarson in Iceland in 1867, Chester H. Thordarson came to Milwaukee with his family in 1873. His father died soon afterward, and the family moved to North Dakota in 1879. At age eighteen he moved to Chicago to get an education, and worked through the seventh grade by age twenty. After working at an electrical firm for seven years and developing his aptitude for mechanical operations, he started his own business (and got married) with only $75 in capital. His entrepreneurial venture made him a wealthy man.
Thordarson built his personal book collection slowly but steadily, even when he was living on just $4 a week. The collectionís initial focus was Iceland, but Thordarson soon turned his attention to history of science and technology, including science in England. With the guidance of Walter Hill, a Chicago rare book dealer, and J. Christian Bay, Librarian of the John Crerar Library, he amassed rare and fundamental books on the subjects of physics, chemistry, alchemy, zoology, botany, scientific travels, scientific illustration, technology, agriculture, surveying, building arts, cooking, medicine, agriculture, husbandry, natural history, medicine, mathematics, ornithology, electricity and magnetism, and domestic occupations.
The collection was kept in Thordarson's factory in Chicago for some time. Later he moved it to Rock Island in Lake Michigan. When Thordarson died in 1945, his will stated that the University was to be given first option of purchasing the collection. When the Regents voted in 1946 to acquire the collection, they allocated an amount not to exceed $270,000 (plus broker's fee). A bargain then, the collection has of course appreciated considerably in the intervening half-century. However, as John Neu, bibliographer for history of science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, notes, "the increase in monetary value is of little concern to the Library. The books were not bought as an investment. They were bought for the faculty and the students. they were bought to teach with, to learn from, and to inspire. Chester Thordarson's books will continue to do that for many years to come."
The books were housed in the State Historical Society of Wisconsin until 1953 when the new Memorial Library was built. More than five thousand of the titles in Thordarsonís collection are now in the Department of Special Collections in Memorial Library. Other, less rare volumes are still in the Memorial Library circulating collection. The portion considered Americana remains in the State Historical Society Library.
With assistance generously provided by the Brittingham Fund, work began in 1998 to generate appropriate online cataloging records for works of outstanding scholarly significance in the Thordarson Collection. These cataloging records have been added to the online library catalog for the University of Wisconsin-Madison (formerly known as MadCat). The same records are also added to WorldCat, a catalog of millions of books, serials, audiovisual media, maps, archives/manuscripts, scores, and computer files owned by libraries around the world, so that researchers far removed from Madison can learn more about the Thordarson Collection.
For more information:
Gilbert Doane, "Chester H. Thordarson and his books," Library News: A staff bulletin, v. 1,
#3 (Sept. 1956), 4-5.
John Neu, "The acquisition of the Thordarson collection," U.W. Library News, volume XI, #3
(March 1966), 1-6.
Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, v. 23 (1930) & 44 (1950).
Dennis Auburn Hill, "The rare book department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison: Origins and early developments, 1948-1960," Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, v. 72,
The Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters beginning with 1870-1872 are available as part of the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.
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Last updated October 28, 2007