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Leonardo da Vinci is regarded as a "Renaissance man" and is one of the most recognizable polymaths.

A polymath (Greek: πολυμαθής, polymathēs, "having learned much")[1] is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas; such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. The term was first used in the seventeenth century; the related term, polyhistor, is an ancient term with similar meaning.

The term is often used to describe those great thinkers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, each of whom excelled at several fields in science and the arts, including such individuals as Ibn al-Haytham,[2] Avicenna, Omar Khayyám,[3] Hildegard von Bingen, Dante Alighieri,[4][5] Francesco Landini,[6] Ibn Khaldun, Filippo Brunelleschi,[7][8] Marsilio Ficino,[9] Andrea del Verrocchio,[10][11] Lorenzo de' Medici,[12][13] Leonardo da Vinci,[14][nb 1] Giovanni Pico della Mirandola,[15] Niccolò Machiavelli,[16] Nicolaus Copernicus, Michelangelo,[17] Gerolamo Cardano,[18] Jacopo Strada,[19] Michael Servetus,[20] Giambattista della Porta,[21] Giordano Bruno,[22] Emilio de' Cavalieri,[23] Paolo Sarpi,[nb 2] Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei,[26] Tommaso Campanella,[27] Gian Lorenzo Bernini,[28] Thomas Browne, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz,[21] Vincenzo Coronelli,[29] Giambattista Vico,[30] Benjamin Franklin,[21] Giacomo Casanova,[31][32] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,[33] Muzio Clementi,[34] Alexander von Humboldt,[35] Thomas Young,[32] William Whewell,[36] John Stuart Mill,[37] Hermann von Helmholtz,[38] Vilfredo Pareto,[39][nb 3] Rabindranath Tagore, Jose Rizal, Walter Russell, Erwin Schrödinger,[45] and Carl Djerassi.[32]

In Renaissance Italy, the idea of the polymath was expressed by one of its most accomplished representatives, Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472), in the statement that "a man can do all things if he will."[46] Embodying a basic tenet of Renaissance humanism that humans are limitless in their capacity for development, the concept led to the notion that people should embrace all knowledge and develop their capacities as fully as possible. This was expressed in the term "Renaissance man" which is often applied to the gifted people of that age who sought to develop their abilities in all areas of accomplishment: intellectual, artistic, social and physical. This term entered the lexicon during the twentieth century and has now been applied to great thinkers living before and after the Renaissance.


  • Renaissance ideal 1
  • Related terms 2
    • Polymath and polyhistor compared 2.1
  • Other uses of 'polymath' 3
  • See also 4
  • Footnotes 5
  • References and notes 6
  • Further reading 7

Renaissance ideal

Many notable polymaths lived during the Renaissance period, a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th through to the 17th century and that began in Italy in the late Middle Ages and later spread to the rest of Europe. These polymaths had a rounded approach to education that reflected the ideals of the humanists of the time. A gentleman or courtier of that era was expected to speak several languages, play a musical instrument, write poetry, and so on, thus fulfilling the Renaissance ideal. The idea of a universal education was essential to achieving polymath ability, hence the word university was used to describe a seat of learning. At this time universities did not specialize in specific areas but rather trained students in a broad array of science, philosophy, and theology. This universal education gave them a grounding from which they could continue into apprenticeship toward becoming a Master of a specific field. During the Renaissance, Baldassare Castiglione, in his guide The Book of the Courtier, described how an ideal courtier should have polymathic traits.[47]

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love (1973)

Castiglione's guide stressed the kind of attitude that should accompany the many talents of a polymath, an attitude he called sprezzatura. A courtier should have a detached, cool, nonchalant attitude, and speak well, sing, recite poetry, have proper bearing, be athletic, know the humanities and classics, paint and draw and possess many other skills, always without showy or boastful behavior, in short, with "sprezzatura". The many talents of the polymath should appear to others to be performed without effort, in an unstrained way, almost without thought. In some ways, the gentlemanly requirements of Castiglione recall the Chinese sage, Confucius, who far earlier depicted the courtly behavior, piety and obligations of service required of a gentleman. The easy facility in difficult tasks also resembles the effortlessness inculcated by Zen, such as in archery where no conscious attention, but pure spontaneity, produces better and more noble skill. For Castiglione, the attitude of apparent effortlessness should accompany great skill in many separate fields. In word or deed the courtier should "avoid affectation ... (and) ... practice ... a certain sprezzatura ... conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it".[47][48]

This Renaissance ideal differed slightly from the "polymath" in that it involved more than just intellectual advancement. Historically (roughly 1450–1600) it represented a person who endeavored to "develop his capacities as fully as possible" (Britannica, "Renaissance Man") both mentally and physically, and, as Castiglione suggests, without "affectation".[47]

Related terms

A different term for polymath is Renaissance man, which was first recorded in written English in the early 20th century.[49] Other similar terms in use are Homo Universalis (Latin) and Uomo Universale (Italian), which translate to "universal person" or "universal man". When someone is called a "Renaissance man" or "Renaissance woman" today, it is meant that, rather than simply having broad interests or superficial knowledge in several fields, he or she possesses a more profound knowledge and a proficiency, or even an expertise, in at least some of those fields.[50] The related term generalist – contrasted with a specialist – is used to describe a person with a general approach to knowledge. Today, the expression "Renaissance man" is usually used to describe a person with intellectual or scholastic proficiency and not necessarily the more universal learning implied by Renaissance humanism. Some dictionaries use the term "Renaissance man" to describe someone with many interests or talents,[51] while others give a meaning restricted to the Renaissance and more closely related to Renaissance ideals.

Medieval German polymath Hildegard of Bingen, shown dictating to her scribe in an illumination from Liber Scivias

The term Universal Genius is also used, with Leonardo da Vinci as the prime example again. The term seems to be used especially when a person has made lasting contributions in at least one of the fields in which he was actively involved, and when he had a universality of approach.

When a person is described as having encyclopedic knowledge, he or she exhibits a vast scope of knowledge. This designation may be anachronistic, however, in the case of persons such as Eratosthenes whose reputation for having encyclopedic knowledge pre-dates the existence of any encyclopedic object.

Polymath and polyhistor compared

Many dictionaries of word origins list these words as synonyms or as words with very similar meanings. Thomas Moore took the words as corresponding to similarly erudite "polys" in his poem "The Devil Among Scholars":[52]

Off I fly, careering far
In chase of Pollys, prettier far
Than any of their namesakes are
—The Polymaths and Polyhistors,
Polyglots and all their sisters.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the words mean practically the same; "the classical Latin word polyhistor was used exclusively, and the Greek word frequently, of Alexander Polyhistor", but polymathist appeared later, and then polymath. Thus today, regardless of any differentiation they may have had when originally coined, they are often taken to mean the same thing.

Other uses of 'polymath'

In Britain, phrases such as "polymath sportsman", "sporting polymath", or simply "polymath" are occasionally used in a restricted sense to refer to athletes who have performed at a high level in several very different sports, rather than to those gifted in many fields of study. One whose accomplishments are limited to athletics would not be considered a "polymath" in the usual sense of the word. Examples include Howard Baker, who was called a "sporting polymath" by the Encyclopedia of British Football for winning high jump titles and playing cricket, football, and water polo.[53]

See also


  1. ^ Leonardo also designed machines and drew plans for hundreds of inventions. See also: Leonardo's Machines.
  2. ^ He was one of the most remarkable figures in Europe at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century. Astronomer, historian, mathematician, linguist, lawyer and theologian,[24] who has been called "The Greatest of the Venetians,"[25] Sarpi is well known to historians of the Reformation for his History of the Council of Trent, but is seldom mentioned in histories of science and medicine. Yet Galileo Galilei described him as "my father and my master"[25] and wrote of him "No man in Europe surpasses Master Paolo Sarpi in his knowledge of the science of mathematics."[25] He carried on an extensive correspondence with the "father of modern algebra" and famous cryptographer, François Viète, and the Scottish mathematician, Alexander Anderson and was called upon to revise their works.[25] He communicated with William Gilbert on the magnet,[25] advised and assisted Sanctorius in his work on the measurement of metabolism.[25] Sir Henry Wotton, the British Ambassador to Venice who knew Sarpi well, commented not only on his mathematical ability, but added that he was "so expert in the history of plants, as if he had never perused any book but nature";[25] and Robert Sanderson, Bishop of Lincoln, lamented to Izaak Walton his regret at not accompanying Sir Henry as chaplain for he lost the opportunity of meeting "one of the late miracles of general learning, prudence and modesty..."[25]
  3. ^ The following are related quotes:

    "And now the astonishing and perturbing suspicion emerges that perhaps almost all that had passed for social science, political economy, politics, and ethics in the past may be brushed aside by future generations as mainly rationalizing. John Dewey has already reached this conclusion in regard to philosophy. Veblen and other writers have revealed the various unperceived presuppositions of the traditional political economy, and now comes an Italian sociologist, Vilfredo Pareto, who, in his huge treatise on general sociology, devotes hundreds of pages to substantiating a similar thesis affecting all the social sciences. This conclusion may be ranked by students of a hundred years hence [2021] as one of the several great discoveries of our age."[40]

    "Pareto's Trattato di Sociologia Generale is the hardest boiled book I have ever read. Three times, since I passed my puberty, has my mind been made over. Once by a nexus of which Henry Adams was the center, once by a matrix of which Frazer burned brightest, and once by a long study of genetics and evolution. Pareto is doing the job a fourth time, and far more vitally than any others."[41]

    "If we are to speak of Pareto's treatise as a seminal book, we must use the epithet in the sense in which we apply it to Newton's Principia. No revolution can follow it, except a revolution in the methods of the social sciences. That revolution is already in its first stages in Italy and in France, and my yet spread to England and to America."[42]

    "Pareto's monumental work, Trattato di Sociologia Generale, lies before us as the most massive and impressive statement of the mechanistic conception of social life."[43]

    "Pareto's Treatise is a work of genius."[44]

References and notes

  1. ^ The term was first recorded in written English in the early seventeenth century Harper, Daniel (2001). "Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 2006-12-05. 
  2. ^ Science, Medicine and Technology,id=A8PzaQZwzZQC&pg=PA74&dq=is+generally+listed+as+chronologically+first+among+noteworthy+Iranian+philosophers&hl=en&ei=lIT3TeS6L6bt0gGJm92iCw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCoQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=is%20generally%20listed%20as%20chronologically%20first%20among%20noteworthy%20Iranian%20philosophers&f=false]
  3. ^ "Omar Khayyam (Persian poet and astronomer)". Retrieved 2012-05-30. 
  4. ^ Hart, David Bentley. The Story of Christianity: A History of 2000 Years of the Christian Faith. Quercus, 2013. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  5. ^ Thalmann, William Greg. Revival of Learning: Dante and the Rise of Renaissance Humanism. USC Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study, 2011. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  6. ^ McGee, Timothy James. Instruments and their music in the Middle Ages. Ashgate, 2009. pp. 132-133. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
    "The Florentine polymath, Francesco Landini (c. 1325-97), political commentator, philosopher, astrologer and virtuoso organist, was influential as organ-consultant, organ-tuner and instrument-designer, blindness notwithstanding." [...]
  7. ^ Day, Lance ; McNeil, Ian. Biographical Dictionary of the History of Technology. Routledge, 2013. p. 193. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  8. ^ Strickland, Carol ; Handy, Amy. The Annotated Arch: A Crash Course in the History of Architecture. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2001. pp. 57-59. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  9. ^ Trinkaus, Charles Edward ; O'Malley, John William ; Izbicki, Thomas M. ; Christianson, Gerald. Humanity and Divinity in Renaissance and Reformation: Essays in Honor of Charles Trinkaus. BRILL, 1993. p. 125. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  10. ^ Ibn-e-Umeed. Art of Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci's tutor, emerges from epic restoration. The Statesmen, 2010. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  11. ^ Kimmelman, Michael. Review/Art; A Florentine Sculptor's Masterpiece. Arts - The New York Times, 1993. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  12. ^ Unger, Miles J. Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de' Medici. Simon and Schuster, 2008. Pages 384. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  13. ^ Mee, Charles L. Lorenzo de' Medici and the Renaissance. American Heritage Pub. Co.; book trade and institutional distribution by Harper & Row, 1969. Pages 153. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  14. ^ Johnston, Robert K. ; Smith, J. Walker. Life Is Not Work, Work Is Not Life: Simple Reminders for Finding Balance in a 24-7 World. Pgw, 2001. p. 1. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
    He was a "prodigious polymath... Painter, sculptor, engineer, astronomer, anatomist, biologist, geologist, physicist, architect, philosopher, humanist."
  15. ^ Fleming, John V. The Dark Side of the Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists, and Spiritual Seekers in the Age of Reason. W. W. Norton & Company, 2013. Web. 27 Nov. 2014.
  16. ^ Genovese, Michael A. Building Tomorrow's Leaders Today: On Becoming a Polymath Leader. Routledge, 2013. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  17. ^ Occhipinti, Emanuele. New Approaches to Teaching Italian Language and Culture: Case Studies from an International Perspective. Cambridge Scholars Pub., 2008. p. 453. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
    "Among the sculptors (although he was a painter and an architect as well) Michelangelo was the most celebrated and he was remembered as a polymath (homo universalis) along with Leonardo da Vinci." [...]
  18. ^ Lock, Stephen ; Last, John M. ; Dunea, George. The Oxford Illustrated Companion to Medicine. Oxford University Press, 2001. p. 139. Web. 27 Nov. 2014.
  19. ^ Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien. Gemäldegalerie. Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien: the Picture Gallery. Kunsthistorisches Museum, 1996. p. 52. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
    "JACOPO STRADA (1507–1588), was a true 'Renaissance Man' - painter, architect, goldsmith, inventor (of machines), numismatist, linguist, art collector and dealer. Above all, he was the Imperial antiquarius in service to the Habsburgs." [...]
  20. ^ Michael Servetus Research Website on the anatomical, pharmacological, theological, grammatical, poetical, cartographical, astronomical and translational works by Michael Servetus.
  21. ^ a b c Cooper, David K. C. Doctors of Another Calling: Physicians Who Are Known Best in Fields Other than Medicine. Rowman & Littlefield, 2013. p. 96. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  22. ^ Saiber, Arielle. Giordano Bruno and the Geometry of Language. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005. p. 1. Web. 27 Nov. 2014.
  23. ^ Hollingsworth, Mary ; Richardson, Carol M. The possessions of a Cardinal: politics, piety, and art, 1450-1700. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010. p. 197. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
    "There is little evidence of an undue influx of clerics into Florence once Ferdinando [I of Tuscany] assumed power there in 1587, but a number of Romans arrived and were installed at the Tuscan court, not least Ferdinando's old friend and confidant, Francesco Orsini, and his wife Francesca Baglioni, who would head Christine of Lorraine's household. The most conspicuous of these for the arts was the Roman gentleman Emilio di Tomaso dei Cavalieri, an astounding polymath, literato, performing musician and composer, and a close friend of Ferdinando's during his Roman years. It is well known that the new cardinal grand duke put Emilio in charge of the production of art works and music at his court, on 19 September 1588." [...]
  24. ^ Wilson, Charles. The Transformation of Europe, 1558-1648. University of California Press, 1976. p. 195. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  25. ^ a b c d e f g h Robertson, Alexander. Fra Paolo Sarpi, the Greatest of the Venetians. 1911. Reprint. Hong Kong: Forgotten Books, 2013. Print. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  26. ^ Weisstein, Eric W. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). ScienceWorld - Wolfram Research. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  27. ^ Debaters (1600s). Studentate - The Dominican Friars of the Province of St. Albert the Great. The Midwestern USA province of the Dominican Friars. Vocational and historical information.
  28. ^ Cotter, Holland. Bernini, the Man of Many Heads. Arts - The New York Times, 2008. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  29. ^ Chamber's Encyclopaedia. International Learnings Systems, 1968. p. 138. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
    "CORONELLI, Vincenzo Maria (1650-1718), Italian cartographer, was a Franciscan friar who, in the Venetian convent where he spent most of his life, drew and engraved over 400 maps and numerous globes. Here he founded the earliest of geographical societies, the Accademia Cosmografica degli Argonauti, and received from Venice the title of cosmografo della Serenissima Repubblica. Coronelli was a polymath of wide range and vast industry; and his copious cartographical output is finely engraved and careful in its use of sources. His works include a large world adas, Atlante Veneto (1691-96); Epitome cosmografica (1693); an unfinished encyclopaedia entitled Biblioteca universale sacro-profana (1701-06) and other atlases. The most celebrated of his many splendid globes are the two (terrestrial and celestial), 15 ft in diameter, which he constructed in 1683 for Louis XIV." R. A. Sk.
  30. ^ Dalton, Anne Marie. A Theology for the Earth: The Contributions of Thomas Berry and Bernard Lonergan. University of Ottawa Press, 1999. p. 8. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  31. ^ Roche, Rick. Read On... Biography: Reading Lists for Every Taste. ABC-CLIO, 2012. p. 95. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  32. ^ a b c Carr, Edward. The Last Days of the Polymath. INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, 2009. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  33. ^ Speake, Jennifer. Literature of Travel and Exploration: An Encyclopedia. Routledge, 2014. p. 493. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  34. ^ Burnett, Richard. Company of Pianos. Finchcocks Press, 2004. p. 67. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
    "A central figure in the history of English pianos, and certainly one of the most fascinating and entertaining, is that of the great Italian musician, Muzio Clementi, born in Rome in 1752. Clementi died in Evesham, Worcestershire, in 1832 at the age of eighty-one, and his career thus straddles the major development of the English piano from its earliest beginnings to the prototype of the modern instrument. Clementi was a polymath, with an almost alarming ability to excel at whatever he touched." [...]
  35. ^ Slack, Nancy G. G. Evelyn Hutchinson and the Invention of Modern Ecology. Yale University Press, 2011. (polymath, 12 pgs). Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  36. ^ Glick, Thomas F. What about Darwin? JHU Press, 2010. p. 474. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  37. ^ McGrew, Timothy ; Alspector-Kelly, Marc ; Allhoff, Fritz. Philosophy of Science: An Historical Anthology. Yale University Press, 2011. (polymath, 5 pgs). Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  38. ^ Gutfreund, H. Kinetics for the Life Sciences: Receptors, Transmitters and Catalysts. Cambridge University Press, 1995. p. 1. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  39. ^ Lopreato, Joseph ; Rusher, Sandra. Sur l'économique – Autour de l'Amérique latine – Sociologies d'hier et d'aujourd'hui – Questions d'épistémologie sociologiques. Librairie Droz, 1999. p. 70. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  40. ^ Robinson, James Harvey. The Mind in the Making: The Relation of Intelligence to Social Reform. Harper & brothers, 1921. p. 47. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  41. ^ Stegner, Wallace Earle. The Uneasy Chair: A Biography of Bernard DeVoto. U of Nebraska Press, 2001. pp. 138–143. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  42. ^ Bongiorno, Andrew. A Study of Pareto's Treatise on General Sociology. American Journal of Sociology, 1930. p. 351. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  43. ^ Stark, Werner. The Fundamental Forms of Social Thought. Routledge, 1998 - Social Science. p. 125. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  44. ^ Henderson, Lawrence Joseph. Pareto's General Sociology: A Physiologist's Interpretation. Russell & Russell, 1967. p. 59. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  45. ^ Kilmister, C. W. Schrödinger: Centenary Celebration of a Polymath. Cambridge University Press, 1989. Pages 264. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  46. ^ [1]
  47. ^ a b c Castiglione, Baldassare. The Book of the Courtier: The Singleton Translation, ed. D. Javitch, (New York: Norton, 2002, 32).
  48. ^ D'Epiro, Peter and Desmond Pinkowish, Mary. Sprezzatura. (New York, Anchor Books, 2001).
  49. ^ Harper, Daniel (2001). "Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 2006-12-05. 
  50. ^ "va=Renaissance man — Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary". Retrieved 2012-04-06. 
  51. ^ "Oxford concise dictionary". Retrieved 2012-04-06. 
  52. ^ The Complete Poems of Sir Thomas Moore by Thomas Moore, Project Gutenberg.
  53. ^ Cox, Richard (2002). Encyclopedia of British Football. Routledge. ISBN.  p. 15

Further reading

  • Frost, Martin, "Polymath: A Renaissance Man"
  • Mirchandani, Vinnie, The New Polymath: Profiles in Compound-Technology Innovations", John Wiley & Sons, 2010
  • Grafton, A, 'The World of the Polyhistors: Humanism and Encyclopedism’, Central European History, 18: 31–47. (1985)
  • Waquet, F, (ed.) 'Mapping the World of Learning: The ‘Polyhistor’ of Daniel Georg Morhof' (2000)
  • Herbert Jaumann, "Was ist ein Polyhistor? Gehversuche auf einem verlassenen Terrain," Studia Leibnitiana, 22 (1990), 76-89
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