It was mentioned a week or two ago that Iceland is in the air. For me, Iceland is on my mind, in my laptop, hidden throughout the Cornell libraries, and scattered about my room. After a couple essays for an environmental history course last year and some preliminary research for finding an honors thesis topic in the history major, I discovered that, thanks primarily to Cornell University’s first librarian, we have one of the largest collections of Icelandic material in the world. Since one of my projects for the environmental history class had shown me that Iceland was an interesting place to examine more closely, I did some more research and found the topic of European travel there during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries engaging enough to choose as an honors thesis subject.
One of the places in Europe with the most spaces left blank by cartographers through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Iceland’s inner regions were not fully mapped until 1901. The foremost scientific writing about Iceland was published by outsiders or Icelanders educated abroad, and there came to be a divergence between the traditional conceptions of the unsettled Highlands and those that were provided through a more educated lens: put simply, rural households saw the Highland wilderness as a mystically dangerous region of outlaws and trolls, while the Enlightened expeditions attempted to prove the folklore wrong through their records of scientific or recreational observations.
Over the summer, I will be staying at Cornell and using the Rare and Manuscript Collections to explore the varying perceptions of nature and wilderness in Iceland during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as consulting the wealth of secondary source material also in our library system. On Raxa Collective, I’ll post some of my thoughts on the more interesting things I find during my research, along with more of Frederick Howell’s great photographs from Cornell’s collection.