Western Libraries built upon Barnett foundation

Western Archives // Special to Western News

This fall, Western Libraries is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the library. In 1918, John Davis Barnett gave Western 40,000 books and other items, transforming our 3,000 volume collection into an academic library.

READ MORE ABOUT IT : Find out how Western Libraries is taking Barnett’s legacy into the future.

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John Davis Barnett’s quaint home in Stratford was so full of books, he joked their stacks held up the house.

The philanthropic curator and would-be-librarian, who came to Canada from England in 1866, could not remember a time when “a book was not a satisfactory thing to possess.” When he arrived in Montreal, he had a modest collection of books in hand, and in the decades that followed, that collection grew to house more books than days Barnett lived.

That personal library, which facetiously buttressed Barnett’s home, eventually contributed to the foundation of Western Libraries.

Though he was an avid collector, books were something of a side hobby for Barnett. He was not a librarian by trade, having studied civil engineering and design, eventually working in England’s railroad industry. Once in Montreal, he became an apprentice in the Grand Trunk Railroad shops, travelling across Eastern Canada. The travels nurtured Barnett’s collector’s gene; as he moved along the tracks, he continually added to his collection.

It’s not that Barnett prized the collection above all things; he prized the knowledge and information the collection stored. He loved literature – and owned more than 1,500 bound volumes of Shakespeare alone – alongside classics and works of literary criticism. His library had a home for history books, science and technology. He gathered monographs, magazines, bulletins, clippings, government publications and prints. North American, European, African and Asiatic history were represented. In the science and technology section, Barnett collected everything he could find on railroads and the development of the Canadian railroads.

And while a collector’s instinct may be towards an individually curated – and resultantly personal – compendium, Barnett had bigger plans for his prized possessions. Towards the end of the First World War, he was becoming increasingly concerned about the future of his collection. In an early will, Barnett bequeathed his books to McGill University, with the proviso that if McGill did not accept the collection, it was to be given to the Dominion Government. But then, he changed his mind.

Western Archives // Special to Western NewsIn 1919, Western awarded John Davis Barnett an honorary Doctor of Laws. He was a member of the Ontario Librarian Association, the Ontario Historical Association and was an honorary president of the Canadian Club. A Methodist, he never married.

In July 1918, Barnett met with Fred Landon, librarian of the London Public Library and C.R. Somerville, Chairman of the Board of Governors at Western.

“As the collection had swelled, (Barnett) had hoped that it might become the nucleus of a national library, but in the end, the persuasive voice and smile of Mr. Landon had brought the collection to London,” Somerville said.

In August 1918, Barnett donated more than 40,000 volumes to Western University Libraries. At that time, the collection was housed on Cheapside Street (east of Waterloo Street) in what was known as the ‘library annex.’

Barnett’s gift was accompanied by several conditions, among them the requirement that his books be available to “any earnest seeker after knowledge,” whether in the university or out of it and a request to not keep his collection separate, in any way, from the general collections of the university. The books he donated, however, are distinct, bearing a unique bookplate.

Special to Western NewsJohn Davis Barnett’s portrait hangs in a prominent position in the Western Archives Reading Room as a reminder of how his significant donation shaped Western Libraries.

His gift of books was considered to be the largest single gift ever received by any library in Canada, forming a “university library of the future,” according to Principal Charles Waller of Huron College, chairman of the library committee at the time.

Barnett “had done more for the university than any other man,” Waller noted, and it was agreed he would come to London and become the curator of the collection – while continuing to add to it. Barnett is said to have had an encyclopedic knowledge of the scope and contents of the books, so the gift to Western increased in value with the addition of Barnett himself.

His books remained in the annex until they were moved to main campus in the summer of 1924.

From 1919-22, Barnett acted as Western’s first librarian and managed the collection. At the end of 1922, when he suffered a fall and a series of strokes, which left him paralyzed and spent his later years at the Victoria Home for the Incurables. He bequeathed his entire estate to Western Libraries and the entire sum was to go toward “furthering the University of Western Ontario Library.”

When asked if he had read every book in his collection, Barnett habitually replied, “In the collection there were more books than I’ve lived days in this wicked world.”

Western conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws upon Barnett in 1919 “recognizing in this way the great benefaction which it had received at his hands.” The university was closed on the day of his funeral in 1926 and all classes were suspended.

In the Western Archives James Alexander and Ellen Rea Benson Special Collections, there are approximately 3,300 titles from Barnett’s collection. A keyword search of the Shared Library Catalogue will yield all of the titles that reside in special collections.

Western Libraries is celebrating Barnett’s extraordinary gift to the university this fall.