New Worlds, Collection Context

Last week I had the opportunity to examine about 30 items for the survey. In addition, Libby suggested that I read over a book by Anthony Grafton titled New Worlds, Ancient Texts to get a very general understanding of the intellectual value of the items in this collection.

Grafton Cover

The introduction and first few chapters of the book provide a specific view of the time and social context in which these books were written. In brief, the author suggests books printed between 1500 and 1700 in Europe as a result of voyages of exploration document an intellectual shift from book learning to empirical knowledge . Grafton explains that in the year that Columbus departed on his first voyage, it was generally accepted that a very small collection of works were capable of describing the universe and man’s place within it. By 1700, however, the libraries were overrun with volumes of recorded observations that conflicted with the traditional canon (ie the Bible) (3).

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, books were regarded as “the most powerful sources of knowledge and guides to behavior” (9). The earliest encyclopedias attempted to provide a comprehensive list of the intellectual disciplines – many times with one definitive author and volume per discipline (16). Reisch’s Margarita Philosophica, for example, lists Euclid as the author for geometry, Ptolomey for astronomy, and Peter Lombard for theology. Through the translation efforts of the humanists, classical texts were just being republished in the 1500’s (45); the knowledge of the ancient world was new again, neatly organized, and consumed in specific context (24).

Grafton asserts that the discovery of the new world invalidated the biblical history of the development of man (4), and ushered in a new reliance on empiricism for scholarship. Schools began teaching with instruments rather than just books (5). Descartes’s Discourse on Method, published in 1637, is an example of the growing reliance on observation for academics.

While this is just one of the many ways in which this collection of material is academically valuable, it does give me a broad idea of the scope of the collection. Once I have finished surveying the material, I should have the opportunity to get more information on the selection of the individual items from Libby.

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