Splendours of Research: A Retrospective Look at Recent Donations

Group PhotoBack Row: Cathy Moulder, Elmar Hodsoll, Karl and Barbara Freeman. Front Row: Doreen Hodsoll and Sydney Banks

The William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections at McMaster University Library currently houses 126,000 rare books, 4,700 periodical titles, 2,375 rare maps, 12,000 microforms, and 12,000 feet of diverse archives. Statistics cannot capture the wealth of material in our collections–the magnificent, historical eighteenth-century collection of books and journals, the varied, in-depth collections of post-1800 books in literature (Charles Dickens, D.H. Lawrence, H.G. Wells, Henry James, etc.), and astonishing archives of the international stature of Vera Brittain and Bertrand Russell. Inquisitive visitors often ask us how we have acquired our treasures of rare books and archives. Where does it all come from?

In the 1960s and 1970s when McMaster University was expanding and aspired to the status of being a research-intensive university, Dr. William Ready, University Librarian and Professor of Bibliography, with singular passion went out of his way to acquire archives and rare books. Shortly after he raised money to acquire the Russell archives at auction, Ready, for example, purchased the J. Barry Brown collection of 8,317 books and pamphlets, for £26,500. Brown's book collection, which weighed 17,500 pounds, focussed on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Among other things it included first editions of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1818), Emma (1816), and Mansfield Park (1814). Those four remarkable novels alone now have a combined market value above the price that Ready paid for the Brown collection. Writing to Brown on 24 January 1969, Ready rhapsodized:

"The rare book room, where your collection will be housed, is taking shape almost daily, and amid all the mud and bulldozers, the snow and the ice, there seems to be hanging over the place a feeling that this purgatorial time will be over and, while heaven will not result, a place of light and beauty will arise out of the slime and mush."

We tend to look back at Ready's tenure as University Librarian between 1966 and 1979 as the golden age of acquisitions when McMaster University Library seemingly had abundant funds to purchase rare books and manuscripts. But Ready was also skilful in obtaining collections by donation. He had the gift of the gab, a sparkle in his eye, and an innate charm and wit that can't be distilled from courses in salesmanship or arid management. He persuaded important Canadians, such as Pierre Berton, Farley Mowat, Peter Newman, and Jack McClelland, to donate their rich, interesting archives to the University Library.

In recent years our main avenue of acquisition is in fact by donation. Donors make an enormous difference to our ability to provide primary research materials by gifts-in-kind and works of cultural property: maps, early manuscripts, posters, and diverse archives. We count on the foresight and generosity of donors to enhance our collections, thereby promoting scholarship, imagination, and the wonder to be found in the complex faces of history.

This exhibition is devoted to our many donors. We cannot survive without you. We salute and thank you. The selection of exhibited material is necessarily just that–it is a representative sampling of books and archives that we have received in the last several years. (We regret that space restrictions have circumscribed our selection.) We invite scholars and visitors, young and old, to marvel and to appreciate these materials. Witness our temple of bountiful books, our living museum of archives. Celebrate and make use of them in your research.


Text: Carl Spadoni
Selection of documents: Renu Barrett and Carl Spadoni
Mounting of the exhibition: Renu Barrett and Sarah van Marren
Original Website: Lela Radisevic