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Henrik Gabriel Porthan

Born 8 November, 1739, Viitasaari. Died 16 March, 1804, Turku.

Master of Philosophy 1760, Royal Academy of Turku

Docent of Rhetoric (Latin), 1762
Library Amanuensis,1764
Acting Professor, 1776, and full Professor of Rhetoric and Verse (Roman Verse), 1777–1804
Rector, 1786–87 and 1798–99, Royal Academy of Turku

Knight of the Nordstjärneorden (Swedish Order of the Polar Star), 1799
Kanslianeuvos (honorary title given to senior civil servants), 1802

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Written by Lauri Lönnström
Translated by John Calton

A librarian par excellence

Henrik Gabriel Porthan worked as the Library Amanuensis for the Royal Academy of Turku in 1764 and as its librarian from 1772­ to 1777. Pedantic, meticulous and inquisitive, Porthan was well suited for work in a library. He introduced a new catalogue system to the library and significantly increased its holdings, which quadrupled in his time there.

Porthan travelled too, forging contacts with other libraries, which afforded the library the opportunity to acquire more works of foreign literature. One such journey was to the University of Göttingen in Hanover in 1779. TIt is thanks to the connections created on that trip that many works of Finnish matter printed before the Great Fire of Turku survived and can be found at Göttingen to this day.

In addition to creating exchanges, Porthan acquired advance copies from Swedish publishers and back catalogues of all manner of Finnish writing for the Academy’s library. Meanwhile, he sent the library’s duplicate copies to the Porvoo gymnasium library.

Porthan’s term of office came to an end in 1777, when he was appointed Professor of Rhetoric and Verse. The bibliographic work continued, however, and he was to add to and develop the library’s collection throughout his career. He also acquired an extensive personal library. The development and expansion of the collection of the Academy’s library formed the foundation of the current National Library of Finland.

The Finnish National Library. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.​
The Finnish National Library. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.​


  • K. Tarkiainen, ‘Porthan, Henrik Gabriel (1739–1804)’. National Biography of Finland online, Finnish Literature Society. Accessed 10 February 2015.
  • Markkanen, T., A. Tiitta, & P. Havaste (eds.), Suomalaisia tieteen huipulla – 100 tieteen ja teknologian saavutusta (‘The best of Finnish science – 100 scientific and technological achievements’), Gaudeamus, 2014. In Finnish.


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