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Karl Collan

Born January 3, Iisalmi. Died September 12, 1871, Helsinki

Master of Arts 1850, Licentiate 1860 and PhD 1864, Imperial Alexander University

Librarian 1866–71, Imperial Alexander University Library
Librarian 1858–64, Student Library
Lecturer of German 1859–66, Imperial Alexander University
Amanuensis extraordinary 1852–53, Imperial Alexander University Library
Teacher 1849, 1852–60, Helsingfors fruntimmersskola
Teacher 1845. 1856–57, 1859, Helsinki Lyceum

Acting curator of the Faculty of History and Literature 1859–60
Treasurer of the Finnish Literature Society 1856–62

Photo: Museovirasto
Written by Tomas Sjöblom
Translated by Matthew Billington

Library innovator

In his academic career Karl Collan’s greatest deeds were performed in connection with libraries. His relationship with libraries had already begun in 1852–1853, when he worked as amanuensis extraordinary at the University Library. In 1858, when the libraries of all the student nations were merged , Collan was appointed librarian of the new Student Library.

During the six years Collan was Librarian, the collections of the Student Library were organised and systematised according to modern methods. This part-time position provided him with much-needed additional funds. The division of labour between the librarian, the faculties, and the student union was somewhat unclear. Some of Collan's proposals for improvements foundered on concrete obstacles, such as Student Union meetings’ lacking a quorum.

The major problem during Collan's tenure was inadequate facilities. However, in 1892 the library received its own building as well as a new name – the Student Union Library. It continued as an independent unit until 2010, when the then Undergraduate Library was subsumed within the City Centre Campus Library of the Helsinki University Library.

New opportunities were appearing in the library sector in 1860, when the University Library began looking for a new Librarian, and Collan set his sights firmly on the post. He went on a long tour of the leading libraries of Europe, coming home with the first dissertation in library studies ever written in Scandinavia. Despite all his efforts, the post nevertheless went to another applicant.

However, the position became vacant once more in 1864. Collan, now a freshly minted PhD, determined to try again. He wrote another dissertation, this time on the history of literature, and applied for the post. The decision lay with the University Senate. One of its members, Georg Zacharias Forsman, judged him to be “a talented amateur whose work [was] better suited to journalism than academia.” However, despite this negative review, Collan was appointed, and in 1866 he began what he considered the finest job in all the land.

Portrait of Librarian Karl Collan. Photo: Pia Vuorikoski / Helsinki University Museum.

As Librarian, Collan was an innovator well aware of the newest trends in the library world. In his travels he had acquainted himself with the leading libraries of Europe. The methods of the library at the British Museum had left an indelible impression on Collan, and he strove to implement them in his work. In short, Collan’s agenda was to develop the University Library into an academic research library.

During his tenure, Collan did manage to make several improvements to the usability and efficiency of the library. One of his priorities was the systematic subject-based arrangement of books. His tenure was cut short, however, when he succumbed to cholera in 1871, at the age of 43. His obituary in Suomalainen Wirallinen Lehti (‘The Finnish Official Gazette’) noted:

“Being as accomplished a researcher as a composer and author, it was to be expected that he would yet grace our land with numerous fine works in both scholarship and art. …Karl Collan …was in 1866 appointed Librarian of the Imperial Alexander University. In this office he demonstrated exemplary zeal, and he succeeded in bringing the library to an ever better and more perfected state.”


  • Rainer Knapas, Tiedon valtakunnassa. ('In the Kingdom of Knowledge'). Helsinki University Library. The National Library of Finland 1640–2010, Helsinki 2012.
  • Tarja Lehtinen, Karl Collan (1828 – 1871) kulttuurivaikuttajana, ('Karl Collan as cultural figure'), unpublished Master's thesis, Helsinki 1987.
  • Esko Häkli, Collan, Karl, National Biography of Finland online publication. Accessed 14 December 2015.
  • Jari Tolvanen, Karl Collan. Maria Elisabeth Collan-Beaurain. Coll. 317, Introduction to the catalogue of Karl and Maria Collan Archives. Accessible through Doria Database. Accessed 14 December 2015
  • Collan, Karl”, Nordisk familjebok 1880, 466 – 467. Projekt Runeberg online publication. Accessed 14 December 2015.
  • Suomalainen Wirallinen Lehti (‘The Finnish Official Gazette’) 14 September 1871.
  • Opiskelijakirjaston historiateos julki ('History of the Undergraduate Library published'), University of Helsinki online publication. Accessed 14 December 2015.
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