Western Libraries takes Barnett legacy into future

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 : Western Libraries built upon Barnett foundation

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In 1918, visionary bibliophile John Davis Barnett donated his personal collection of 40,000 books to enrich the relatively modest library holdings at Western – at the time, housing less than 1,000 works. His only condition was that every page be available to “any earnest seeker of knowledge.”

Today, Western Libraries is honouring that century-old pledge by extending the reach of the Barnett collection further than the philanthropic curator and would-be-librarian could have ever imagined.

Barnett came to Canada from England in 1866 and as an engineer traveling along the Grand Trunk Railroad, he grew his personal library in the decades that followed. He believed, not only in the universal power of knowledge, but also the importance of unrestricted access to information.

“Some care not for knowledge or care so far only as it can be used to bring money into their own pockets. Others esteem knowledge much but treat it as a caviar – good for themselves, and their class, only. Others believe in it and in its widest possible extension to race, class, and worker. These are the people who can be counted on to help in widening schools and increasing free libraries,” Barnett said.

The Western Libraries Barnett Legacy Project, which will launch this fall, aims to extend knowledge to anyone, anywhere, by facilitating the digitalization of Barnett’s storied collection.

While Western Libraries boasts an internationally recognized collection of rare books and other special collections, most of these resources are available only to those who can access them in person. The digitization project strives to make these items available online, thus increasing their discoverability and usability around the globe.

Having scholars cite these items will increase Western’s reputation as a major research destination, as well as provide assurance to the university’s special collections donors that their contributions will be utilized, valued, and appreciated for generations, according to Western Archivist Robin Keirstead.

“While I doubt that John Davis Barnett could have imagined the technology available to provide access to our collections, I expect he would appreciate our plans to digitize more of our unique holdings and make them available to scholars around the world. In this way, we are further realizing his vision that Western share his collection with ‘any earnest seeker of knowledge,’” he noted.

Funds raised through the Western Libraries Barnett Legacy Project will allow the purchase of a high-resolution rare book scanner to begin digitizing some of the libraries’ most valuable resources.

Funds will also support a co-op opportunity for a Master of Library and Information Science student to gain important career experience while working under the guidance of librarians and archivists to make the newly digitized resources available.

This project also supports Western Libraries’ efforts over the next two years to create a Digital Scholarship Centre at the D.B. Weldon Library. This Centre, a key component of the overall Western Libraries Space Master Plan, will provide the space and technological capacity required to support cutting-edge research and teaching in the digital age.

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.

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.

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