Skip to content ↓

Library marks major acquisition

On November 17, the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology celebrated the single most important addition to the Burndy Library since it arrived at MIT in 1992.

Dignitaries, including President Charles Vest and Francesco Sicilia, director general for library assets and cultural institutions for the Republic of Italy, gathered to mark the arrival at Burndy of the extraordinary book collection of the Italian mathematician and physicist Vito Volterra (1860-1940).

The culmination of a multiyear collaboration between the Dibner Fund (supporter of the Dibner Institute/Burndy Library), Brandeis University and the Republic of Italy, the arrival of the Volterra Collection is a major milestone in both the development of Burndy Library, which specializes in the history of science, and the longstanding relationship between the history of science communities in the United States and Italy.

The size of the Volterra Collection alone is impressive: nearly 7,000 volumes, dozens of journals, and 17,000 pamphlets and reprints. In pure numbers, the Volterra Collection increases the Burndy Library's holdings by nearly one-third.

A list of the collection's highlights is nearly indistinguishable from a list of the critical texts in the western scientific tradition. There are copies of Galileo Galilei's Sidereus Nuncius (Venice, 1610); Tycho Brahe's Epistolarum astronomicarum libri (Uraniborg, 1596); Sir Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica (London, 1687), as well as Trait� de la lumi��re (Leiden, 1690) and Horologium oscillatorium (Paris, 1673) of the great Dutch natural philosopher Christiaan Huygens.

The Volterra Collection's most distinguishing characteristic is its depth and range. In addition to the Sidereus Nuncius, for example, there are multiple editions of nearly every work published by Galileo, as well as many books by Galileo's predecessors and contemporaries. Mathematics, from the 15th century to the 20th, is a particular strength. There are dozens of early editions of Euclid, beginning with the first (1482), as well as a string of important texts in the early history of mathematics, from Luca Pacioli's De Divina Proportione (Venice, 1509) to important works by 17th-century figures such as John Napier, Bonaventura Cavalieri and Pierre de Fermat.

The 18th- and 19th-century holdings are especially strong. The collection includes many major (and minor) works by Euler, Gauss, Ohm and Helmholtz; nearly the complete works of LaPlace and LaGrange; and books by Babbage and Jacobi.

The collection's holdings in the history of physics, optics and astronomy are nearly as extensive as those in mathematics. Even fields which were not among the particular interests of Volterra are represented by some remarkable titles. There is, for example, one of the very few copies in this country of the four-volume Fisica de' corpi ponderabili of Amedeo Avogadro (Turin, 1837-1841).

Bern Dibner, founder of the Burndy Library, purchased Vito Volterra's books in the early 1980s with the intention of bringing them to the United States. However, a portion of Dr. Volterra's library remained in Rome, the property of the Republic of Italy. In the interest of making his entire library available to scholars in one place, the Italian Ministry of Cultural Assets has placed its portion of the collection on permanent deposit at the Burndy Library. This unusual collaboration between the Italian government and an American institution is also recognition of the Dibner Institute/Burndy Library's role as a center of international importance for the study of the history of science.

The host for the November 17 event was David Dibner, president of the Dibner Fund and chairman of the Dibner Institute's board of trustees. In addition to President Vest and Dr. Sicilia, speakers included Franco Modigliani, Institute Professor emeritus in economics and finance and a member of the Dibner Institute's board, who has been of great assistance over the years in relation to the Volterra Collection; Dr. Judith R. Goodstein, university archivist at Caltech, who is writing a book on Vito Volterra; and Paolo Galluzzi, director of the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence and a former Dibner Institute Distinguished Visiting Scholar. The event was attended by members of the Volterra family from Italy, the United States and Canada.

Vito Volterra was among the leading figures in Italian science and politics in the first half of this century. Always active as a scientist, after entering the Italian Senate in 1905 he also became increasingly dedicated to the cause of democracy. During the first World War, he was a strong proponent of Italy's involvement on the side of the Allies, and as president of the Accademia dei Lincei, a post first held by Galileo, he was one of the principal signatories of the Intellectuals' Declaration against fascism.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 8, 1999.

Related Topics

More MIT News