Books on witchcraft from the 15th and 16th centuries housed in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.

A look inside Cornell Library’s rare and intriguing collections

Cornell University
Apr 4 · 6 min read

For Andrew Dickson White, Cornell University’s co-founder and first president, a great university and a great library were “inextricably linked.” More than 150 years later, Cornell University Library continues to represent White’s ideals, advancing the university’s mission to discover, preserve and disseminate knowledge and to create a culture of broad inquiry.

Our library collections hold countless gems: printed volumes, digital resources, media and archival materials and artifacts. Accessible online and in person, these resources fuel new discoveries and scholarship and spark intellectual life and curiosity on campus and beyond. Here are but a few examples of the distinctive breadth and depth of treasures found in Cornell University Library’s holdings.

Shakespeare Folios

Cornell’s collections include the original 17th-century editions of William Shakespeare’s collected works, known as the four folios. Donated to Cornell in 1953 by William G. Mennen, class of 1908, these volumes are among the most important books in world literature. The First Folio of 1623, published seven years after the author’s death, established Shakespeare’s canon by collecting his plays in a single volume for the first time. Eighteen of the thirty-six plays published in the First Folio had never been printed before their appearance at Cornell.

The Cornell Witchcraft Collection

Originally part of Andrew Dickson White’s prodigious personal library, the Cornell Witchcraft Collection is the largest of its kind in North America. A rich source for students and scholars, the collection contains more than 3,000 books and manuscripts that illustrate how popular views on witches have evolved over 500 years. Some of its more intriguing contents include the first book on witchcraft ever printed, the first printed image of witches in flight, and court records of witch trials. View the digital collection here.

Sketches in Mozart’s Hand

Cornell University Library’s collections include hand-written musical sketches by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. After achieving fame across Europe as a child prodigy, Mozart became perhaps the greatest keyboard player and composer of his time. In 2003, an exhibition in the Carl A. Kroch Library presented a collection of documents and objects that illuminate how Mozart’s music was performed and understood in the late 18th century and in the centuries since.

The works of Nancy Anne Kingsbury Wollstonecraft

Dating back to 1826, Nancy Anne Kingsbury Wollstonecraft’s “Specimens of the Plants and Fruits of the Island of Cuba” brims with meticulous descriptions and watercolor illustrations. Emilio Cueto, author of “Illustrating Cuba’s Flora and Fauna,”describes the folio as “the most important corpus of plant illustrations in Cuba’s colonial history.” Despite the author’s attempts at publication, the three-volume manuscript was never published in her lifetime. It became a family heirloom and was donated to the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC) in 1923 by her descendant Benjamin Freeman Kingsbury, a Cornell professor. The pioneering but little-known botanical illustrator’s work is achieving belated recognition thanks to Cueto’s research and the library’s digitization efforts.

The Cornell Coin Collection

Part of the Cornell Collections of Antiquities, the Cornell Coin Collection has approximately 1,800 coins from ancient Greece and Rome and roughly 300 coins from the Byzantine Empire. Other coins in the collection come from Persia, the Sassanid Empire, China, modern Europe, and Lydia, an ancient kingdom in what is now western Turkey that is believed to be where coins originated. A large number of the coins were acquired by Cornell Professors Eugene P. Andrews and Frederick O. Waage in the first half of the 20th century. Since then, the collection has been digitized for online viewing. View the digital collection here.

Fore-edge paintings

The Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections has several books with hidden paintings on their edges. In the technique known as fore-edge painting, floral scrolls or scenes are painted on the fanned-out edges of a book’s pages, such that the designs are concealed by a solid gilt edge when the book is closed. According to legend, the technique was developed at the request of King Charles II of England as a secret method by which his books could be identified if they were borrowed and not returned. Cornell’s collection includes several paintings by Miss C.B. Currie, one of the most important English fore-edge artists of the 20th century and the only one known to have numbered her editions.

Rare Cookery Book Collection

There are more than 3,000 rare cookery books dating from the 15th century onward in the Rare Cookery Collection of RMC’s holdings on Food, Wine and Culinary History. These materials trace the evolution of cultural practices relating to cooking, eating, drinking, and entertaining, and feature the writing of great cooks and food authors, past and present. French culinary history is especially well represented by the works of François Pierre de La Varenne, Menon, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Marie Antonin Carême, and Auguste Escoffier.

Union-Made: Fashioning America in the Twentieth Century

In the 1970s and 1980s, some of the biggest names in the U.S. fashion industry helped to make union-made clothing fashionable and recognizable. Sewn into garments, the union-made label signaled to consumers that goods were made by American workers under fair labor standards. A 2017 exhibit at The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives focused on the role played by two American labor unions in the era’s massive campaigns to promote union-made clothing. Stephen Burrows, Halston, and Pauline Trigère are among the many designers whose union-made pieces were featured in the exhibit.

Chocolate: Food of the Gods

Mann Library is one of the country’s best library collections in agriculture, life sciences and human ecology. Throughout its history, Mann has housed a variety of virtual exhibits. “Chocolate: Food of the Gods” documents the early roots of cacao, dating back to the 8th century A.D. The exhibit traces chocolate’s evolution, from ceremonial preparations in Mayan and Aztec cultures to its entry into Europe as a recreational drink; and the invention, in 1828, of the specialized hydraulic press that allowed it to be eaten in solid form. View the digital collection here.

Learn more about historical resources and special collections at Cornell University Library.

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Learning. Discovery. Engagement.

Cornell University

Learning. Discovery. Engagement. Join the #Cornell conversation.