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University of California, Davis Library

Michael and Margaret B. Harrison Western Research Center, Department of Special Collections

Collection Profile

When Michael Harrison (1897–2005) chose to work in the National Park Service at the Grand Canyon in 1922, he could not have guessed that his life in the West would lead to the building of one of the finest Western Americana research collections in private hands. Michael Harrison, known as Mike to his friends, assembled the collection with his wife, Margaret B. Harrison, whom he met while working as a ramrod at a dude ranch in California in 1931. The collection, donated in its entirety in 2006, consists of more than 21,000 volumes relating to the history of the Trans-Mississippi West. It is made up of rare and fine press books, serials, pamphlets, maps, and other printed items.

Michael Harrison's passion for the American West was the driving force behind the collection, while Margaret B. Harrison supported his efforts by gaining the skills to become a fine hand-bookbinder. Harrison began to collect books in the 1920s, starting with government publications on southwestern history and Native American cultures. After his employment with the Park Service at the Grand Canyon National Park, he worked in New Mexico and California for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. As part of his responsibilities he traveled around northern California evaluating Indian tribal conditions for the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1934 to 1947). A major focus of his collection is the history and treatment of Native Americans, with a highpoint of the collection being the spectacular Edward S. Curtis North American Indian 40-volume set (1907–30). Subject strengths of the collection include Native Americans, cowboys and cattlemen, western military history, Custer and the Battle of the Little Big Horn, western art, transportation, trails, and national parks. The collection also contains prime examples of artwork including paintings, etchings, and lithographs; Native American baskets and pottery; bronze sculptures; and memorabilia.

With the arrival of each new book, Harrison would begin the painstaking process of cataloging the book using the "Harrison Peculiar System," often working late into the night at his manual typewriter. The resulting card catalog of over 700,000 cards leads researchers to numerous indexed subjects for books and journal articles not found in a standard library catalog. Although the collection has only recently been opened for research in an academic setting, correspondence to Michael Harrison provides a record of the collection's long history of supporting the research of numerous western historians, museum directors, faculty, students, and history buffs. The correspondence also shows Michael Harrison's efforts to support Native American causes, debunk western myths, and his insistence that researchers support their claims with documentation.

A unique relationship developed with the General Library, University of California, Davis to assist Harrison in building and cataloging the collection into his centenary years. Michael Harrison died at 107 years of age on April 5, 2005, after 80 years of collecting. The General Library celebrated the Harrisons' contributions and the opening of this remarkable collection in October of 2006.

Collection Profile and Overview: Daryl Morrison
Illustrations: John Skarstad and Hector Villicana

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