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 double-elephant folio edition of Audubon’s Birds of America. It also features a complete set of Gould’s monographs on birds of the world, lavish Rivière 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 collection’s 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. [Jens] 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 decades. 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 University of Wisconsin Memorial Library was built. More than five thousand of the titles in Thordarson’s 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 Wisconsin Historical Society Library.
Finding Titles in the Collection
All call numbers for titles in the Thordarson Collection begin with the phrase Thordarson T. For example, J. O. Westwood, The butterflies of Great Britain (London: W. S. Orr and Co., 1855) has the call number Thordarson T 4597. With assistance generously provided by the Brittingham Fund, expert catalogers produced online cataloging records for all titles in the Thordarson Collection in Special Collections; these catalog records can be found both in the Library Catalog for the University of Wisconsin-Madison and in WorldCat.
Numerous sources describe Thordarson’s collection, among them the following:
- Jens Christian Bay, “Bibliotheca Thordarsoniana,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, v. 23 (1929), 1-17; and Ralph Hagedorn, “Bibliotheca Thordarsoniana: The sequel,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, v. 44 (1950), 1-26.
- Gilbert Doane, “Chester H. Thordarson and his books,” Library news: A staff bulletin, v. 1, no. 3 (Sept. 1956), 4-5.
- John Neu, “The acquisition of the Thordarson collection,” U.W. Library news, v. XI, no. 3 (March 1966), 1-6.
- Dennis A. 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 (1984), 40-48, which recounts the circumstances of the University’s acquisition of Thordarson’s collection.
- Chester Hjörtur Thordarson Papers, 1880-1945, Wisconsin Historical Society Library-Archives. Finding aid available.
- Carol Lohry Cartwright, “Rock Island: The Personification of Chester H. Thordarson,” The Wisconsin magazine of history, v. 69, no. 3 (spring 1986), 211-227.
- Richard Purinton, Thordarson and Rock Island. C. H. Thordarson and his Lake Michigan island estate (Washington Island, Wisconsin: Island Bayou Press, 2013), especially chapter 10, “A magnificent library, a lifetime of books.”