Library of Congress - bókasýning

Science and Culture Living and reliving
the Icelandic Sagas Library of Congress,
Washington, 24 May 2000

As we celebrate a new millennium we are witnessing a time of truly tremendous change. It may therefore be well to bear in mind that for most of human history material progress was indeed very slow. Throughout centuries life in Iceland certainly did not change much in the span of a generation or two, until the pace started to pick up in the 19th century.

We are greatly privileged to be here as guests of the Library of Congress whose lifespan of exactly two centuries coincides with vast technological advance as well as the greatest and most tragic conflicts of all times. It is heartening to note that in its 200 year history this institution has maintained a position of cultural pre-eminence in the United States, having no rival anywhere in terms of its resources and the diversity with which they are used.

Iceland is here to present, through an exhibit, national treasures which are unique albeit in a way very different from the history, culture and achievements represented so proudly by the Library of Congress. Never before has there been an exhibition of as many noteworthy manuscripts and books that preserve the cultural heritage of Icelanders as well as important information about the history of North America. I must congratulate the Library of Congress, the Cornell University Library, the University of Manitoba Libraries and the National and University Library of Iceland for organizing this historical event.

What we want to bring to your attention is that the Icelandic people have a recorded history of more than eleven hundred years, which sheds light not only on ourselves, but also other nations, as our forefathers were great seafarers. Icelanders may be said to have had a true passion for preserving detailed knowledge about themselves and the world they knew, as well as keeping intact the ancient language of their ancestors.

We passed some 800 years ago from an oral tradition in preserving knowledge into the age of writing the Icelandic Sagas in such a way as to know with great deal of exactness when and by whom Iceland was settled. The first settlers came in little more than a century before the year 1000 when Christianity was adopted by the Icelandic Parliament. And it is also in the year 1000 when we assume that our history and that of yours join through the celebrated discovery voyage of Leifur Eiríksson.

The Prime Minister of Iceland established the Commission which is the sponsor of this very event. As it was thought appropriate to celebrate the 1000th Anniversary of Leifur Eiríksson's voyage in a variety of ways in the United States and Canada. This exhibit will travel to Cornell University, the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg and hopefully to New York to the new home of the American Scandinavian Foundation as part of our many cultural programs this year here in North America.

As we present our cultural heritage in this traditional way the Internet is also being activated. A socalled SagaNet is being made in cooperation between the Cornell University Library, The National and University Library of Iceland and the Icelandic Árni Magnússon Institute, there we will be able to study the manuscripts in digital form. This initiative would not have been possible without a generous support of the Mellon Foundation for which we are most grateful.

Although this is not the time and place for lengthy enumerations I cannot here in Washington but express my great satisfaction over having at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History the exhibit "Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga" on which Iceland as one of the Nordic countries cooporated with the United States and Canada. It was of course very important for us that this effort fits so well into the White House Millennium Council's celebrations.

In this context I also want to express the great appreciation of the Icelandic Government for the important work carried out in the Bilateral Working Group between our Commission and the White House and to thank the Library of Congress for its significant participation in this work.

I venture to say that it is a great deal easier for us in Iceland to follow national developments in the United States than it would be for Americans to find out what is going on in Iceland. After all the world has CNN to keep you in the spotlight.

Speaking for a moment as the Cabinet Minister also responsible for sports I can say that there is quite a following now at home for your basketball and fans regard it as truly important to see NBA scores on a daily basis. But then much of what we do in Iceland is of little interest to outsiders except perhaps when it came to threatening the world soccer champions, France, with defeat last year. It generally takes a volcanic eruption or a summit meeting between President Reagan and President Gorbachev for us to make world news.

We prefer therefore to take the timeless message of culture to our friend and ally, the United States. In this building dedicated as it is to one of the greatest Americans of all times, Thomas Jefferson, we are honoured to present to you the exhibit we have at hand: "Living and Reliving the Icelandic Sagas".

I am also honoured to announce at this historic institution the decision of the Government of Iceland to donate some 650 sets of the complete Sagas of Icelanders, the first co-ordinated English translation, to libraries in the United States. As stated by Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson this gift in the year 2000 is to mark the millenium of the voyages led by Leifur Eiríksson and a gesture towards extending an awareness of the sagas and of their place in the great heritage shared by all nations of the world.

At the same time as I thank Secretary of Education, Mr. Riley, for being here with us today and for our meeting yesterday I kindly ask him to step forward and receive the first set of the Sagas of Icelanders on behalf of the people of the United States.

I also ask Chief Librarian of Congress dr. Billington to receive a set on behalf of the library.