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Highlights from A.D. White's collections on display in Cornell's Kroch Library through Sept. 28 Exhibit includes Medieval manuscripts, witchcraft texts and abolitionist posters

While Andrew Dickson White's role in helping to found Cornell University has been rightfully celebrated, his prowess as a book collector has gotten short shrift, say Mark G. Dimunation, Cornell's curator of rare books, and Elaine D. Engst, university archivist. That may be because, over four decades, White's acquisitiveness was decidedly utilitarian: he was more interested in procuring items that would shed light on major historical events such as the French Revolution and the Civil War than in acquiring items for their aesthetic or monetary value.

"Part of what was unusual about White's collection is that he was collecting popular culture," Engst said. "So you have everyday items, as well as the really high-end items." Now through Sept. 28, members of the Cornell and greater Ithaca communities can view many of these artifacts -- including Medieval illuminated manuscripts and Matthew Hopkins' 1647 text The Discovery of Witches -- in "A Legacy of Ideas: Andrew Dickson White and the Founding of the Cornell University Library" in the Carl A. Kroch Library Gallery. The exhibit is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m.

White, Cornell's first president, began acquiring books cautiously on a "Grand Tour" of Europe after graduating from Yale University. His appetite whetted, he soon went on a buying binge, writing to his mother that she was about to witness "an avalanche of the most splendid books ever seen in Syracuse."

Later, when he was appointed professor of history and English literature at the University of Michigan (one of the first people to hold such a title), White made ample use of the original sources he had acquired: for example, he drew his lectures on the French Revolution from full sets of the period's leading newspapers and more than 7,000 Revolutionary pamphlets, speeches and portraits.

"White was a savvy book buyer," Dimunation said. "His French Revolution collection documented the moments of the period that affected the everyday citizen. This emphasis on the social history of the Revolution lends great importance to the collection today. It has, since White's day, grown to be the largest French Revolution collection outside of Paris."

In 1864 White became the youngest member of the New York State Senate, where he met Ezra Cornell, chair of the Agriculture Committee. Cornell proposed a bill to endow a public library in Ithaca before the Education Committee, which White chaired -- and the seeds were sown for a great university, and a great university library. White donated his entire library to Cornell University in 1891.

But his collecting didn't stop there. In Munich, Germany, he obtained rare works relating to theology's bearing on civilization; in Salt Lake City, a collection of Mormon literature. After retiring from active public life in 1903, White could remark, "Cornell University has now, within forty years from its foundation, accumulated very nearly three hundred thousand volumes, many of them of far greater value than anything contained in the Yale library of my day."