Head’s Up: The Kindness of Strangers

In the course of preparing for an upcoming talk to the McGuffey Museum Volunteers, I’ve been reminded that some aspects of the academic enterprise never change: in this case, fundraising. Both the University and the University Libraries have relied upon the kindness of strangers from, quite literally, the beginning.

In 1810 the new Miami University Board of Trustees authorized Rev. John W. Browne of Paddy’s Run, Ohio, to undertake a journey through the eastern states in order to raise funds for the new university. Beginning in Pittsburgh, Browne traveled by horseback to Washington and Virginia, then up the eastern seaboard, hat in hand, preaching the value of a university in what was then still the frontier.

He met with some success in the nation’s capital, itself still a new city, when a number of government officials received him. His subscription book records that Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky promised $20 and Secretary of State James Monroe $15. But it is also in “Washington City” that we see the first of many entries like that for Paul Hamilton, Secretary of the Navy, who subscribed for $15 “(and several books).”  In fact through much of his journey Rev. Browne proved more successful in obtaining donations of books than of money (although he also garnered other gifts in kind, including a barrel of “Spanish whiting” or whitewash, and a group of locks and hinges).

“I find it a rare thing to get a dollar, but I find some encouragement in procuring books for the University Library,” Browne wrote to Joab Comstock on May 16, 1811. “In Baltimore I have collected about 200 vol. of different descriptions & subjects & about 200 vol. in Washington. I have the prospect of many more – so that I do expect I shall procure a handsome library.”

Some of these books were later sold in Cincinnati to raise money, and some of them comprised the very first Miami University library.

Both the University Libraries in general and the Walter Havighurst Special Collections in particular remain dependent on the generous support of the many alumni, faculty, community members and others who value and support the role of higher education and the importance of heritage collections like ours.

And one of the fun things about working in Special Collections is that you never know what’s going to show up on your doorstep. We have space and staff limitations, of course, so we can’t accept everything. (See the Libraries’ gift policy for more details.) But this week both a Miami faculty member and a Miami student approached me with some significant donations of materials that we were happy to accept.

At the same time we deeply appreciate the generous financial gifts we receive that allow us to purchase materials relevant to our collections and the classes and researchers who use them. The Kelmscott Chaucer noted in this space last week was purchased with funds given by a number of donors, as were three other significant acquisitions we’ll be describing in the coming weeks.

Supporting Special Collections and the University Libraries is an investment in the education of our students, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the preservation of our cultural heritage. It’s hard to imagine a better return on your investment than that. I’d like to think that Miami’s very first donors would agree.

Elizabeth Brice
Assistant Dean for Technical Services and
Head, Special Collections & Archives

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