Indiana State University Newsroom

Cordell Collection upholds legacy of language

June 4, 2009

Anamnesis: The recollection or remembrance of the past; reminiscence, according to "Webster's Unabridged Dictionary."

For two sisters that word describes their recent trip to Indiana State University's Cunningham Memorial Library and a visit to the dictionary collection donated by their parents, Warren and Susan Cordell.

"It's him," said Barbara Cordell, of Palo Alto, Calif., after visiting the room named for her parents that houses part of the collection. "When I go into that room with the smell of old books, my childhood comes back."

"I have an affinity for loving these books," said Jeanne Cordell Shafer of Weathersfield, Vt. "They're my father's memory, preserved and protected."

As part of their visit on May 29, in conjunction with a visit by the Dictionary Society of North America in honor the collection's 40th anniversary, Barbara Cordell and Shafer presented the library with the two-volume 1771 edition of Joseph Baretti's "Dictionary of English and Italian Languages," which has a dedication by Samuel Johnson who compiled "The Dictionary of the English Language" published in 1755.

During the presentation attended by more than 100 members of the society, Barbara Cordell also donated a paperback version of "NetLingo: The Internet Dictionary."

"That brings us into the new century," she said to laughter by the dictionary aficionados.

Warren Cordell, who grew up in Terre Haute, collected thousands of volumes of dictionaries out of his love of words and donated them to his alma mater. He graduated from Indiana State in 1933 with majors in math and physics. He worked for the A. C. Nielsen Company, a pioneer marketing research organization.

"In his heart he was a bibliophile," Barbara Cordell said. "That passion permeated our daily lives."

He tutored his children in Greek and Latin word roots and gave them word riddles to solve. He also had his children help him sneak boxes of books into the house.

"Mother would wake up in the morning and ask, ‘Jeanne, how many boxes did you take down?'" Shafer said.

Shafer also recalled playing a game with her father in which she would work her way through a dictionary calling out words and he would give the definitions.

"He would pay me 10 cents for every word he didn't know," she said. "After an hour I'd earn maybe a dollar."

Warren Cordell, who was then in the infancy of dictionary collecting, chose dictionaries now in ISU's special collections for his own study. He used them to write articles on word derivations and word meanings for the A.C. Nielson Company's in-house magazine.

"A characteristic image of him is in his library studying dictionaries," Barbara Cordell said. "It was clear he amassed the collection so he could use it. These books need to be used."

"He was really in the right place at the right time," Shafer said. "It would be difficult to amass a collection like that now."

After a renovation of his house's basement, Warren Cordell stored many of the dictionaries there. However, a particularly bad thunderstorm caused water to begin backing up into the space and he rallied his family to rescue the books.

"He realized he was the caretaker of a precious commodity that could never be replaced," Shafer said.

In December 1969, Warren Cordell donated 453 early English dictionaries to Indiana State, thus beginning the collection that would soon total thousands of volumes. During the next 10 years he donated 3,232 editions totaling 3,913 volumes to the library. After Cordell died in 1980, his wife donated the remainder of her husband's lexicographical holdings, resulting in the addition of hundreds of titles.

"It's only fitting that it end up here (Indiana State University); it's where he got his start," Shafer said.

Nearly 13,000 volumes of dictionaries and word books now make up the Cordell Collection.

"I've been working with it for 20 years and I haven't found another one that's close in size or depth," said David Vancil, ISU chair of special collections. "This particular collection is the world's largest of dictionaries and other word books."

The oldest items in the collection are a "Junianus Maius, De priscorum proprietate verborum," a three-volume alphabetical listing of Latin words published in 1475; a 1478 edition of "Vocabularius Breviloquus" by Johann Reuchlin and a 15th century manuscript titled "De Compendiosa Doctrina."

The Cordell Collection also includes more than 280 different editions and issues of Johnson's dictionary.


Barbara Cordell and Jeanne Shafer pose with a photo of their father Warren Cordell in the Cordell Collection room.Warren Cordell conceived the collection as a way to study the development of the English language in published dictionaries and the tradition of lexicography which developed in Western Europe.


"When I asked him why he collected these things, he said ‘If we don't preserve dictionaries we'll never understand the great works and their meanings,'" Barbara Cordell said.

Other uses for the holdings have become evident. For example, as cultural productions, dictionaries and other reference works are particularly useful as socio-historical tools for studying British and American interaction with other cultures, according to Vancil. Because of the great depth of the holdings, they serve researchers in many unrelated disciplines as a vast storehouse of definitions or keys to usage of words about which there might otherwise be only conjecture.

People from across the globe visit the collection to study the dictionaries or contact Vancil for assistance in using the dictionaries virtually. During the visit by the Dictionary Society on May 29, more than 100 people from many different countries and states visited the collection.

"Language, so typical of human beings, makes us different from everything else," said Ilan Kernerman of Israel. "Each of us is a product of words."


Contact: David Vancil, Indiana State University, head of special collections at the Cunningham Memorial Library, at 812-237-2611 or

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, assistant director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or


Cutline: Jeanne Cordell Shafer of Weathersfield, Vt., and Barbara Cordell of Palo Alto, Calif., present the two-volume 1771 edition of Joseph Baretti's "Dictionary of English and Italian Languages" to Alberta Comer, ISU library dean, to be included in the collection donated by their parents Warren and Susan Cordell. ISU Photo/Kara Berchem


Story Highlights

As part of a visit on May 29, in conjunction with a visit by the Dictionary Society of North America in honor the collection's 40th anniversary, Barbara Cordell and Jeanne Shafer presented the library with the two-volume 1771 edition of Joseph Baretti's "Dictionary of English and Italian Languages."

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