Exhibition tells 'a detective story about obsession' | University of Oxford

Exhibition tells 'a detective story about obsession'

An exhibition curated at the Bodleian Library by an English academic uncovers the story behind the largest donation ever made to the library.

Dr Abigail Williams at the Faculty of English Language and Literature has curated the exhibition which explores the life of Walter Harding, a British-born ragtime pianist living in Chicago who amassed the world’s largest collection of popular songbooks.

Harding, who left the collection to the Bodleian after his death in December 1973, was the son of a bricklayer from the East End of London. He capitalised on the lack of scholarly interest in popular music at the time and the flood of books on the American market during the Great Depression to build up an enormous collection of music, drama and poetry despite his modest means. He assembled the world’s largest collection of popular songbooks and miscellanies in a modest townhouse in a shabby suburb of Chicago – the house held 30,000 rare books by the time he died.

Dr Williams said: ‘Walter Harding’s ability to collect on such a scale, despite modest means, is impressive and inspiring. The display tells his story for the first time, reconstructed from the archives. It is a detective story about obsession, philanthropy and one extraordinary man’s passion for the past. Harding is an unsung hero, and a man whose foresight preserved a lost world of popular music, at a time in the early 20th Century when it was not really valued. His legacy is still living and we have only just begun to uncover the riches in this varied and unusual collection.’

Dr Williams presented the collection at an event at the Bodleian Library on 18 January 2012 with talks and a concert of music taken from the collection, including 17th century dance music, Scottish songs, Harding’s own song and his favourite gospel song. Professor Michael Burden of the Faculty of Music gave a talk at the event.

The exhibition, which is free and open until 29 January 2012, will tell the story of Walter Harding, his collection and its journey to Oxford. The material was packed in 900 boxes weighing 20 tonnes and shipped from Chicago to Oxford in two chartered aircraft. The exhibition will also explore the act of collection, from Harding’s meticulous indexing of his library to his sense of his relationship with his books.

Dr Abigail Williams will present a programme on Walter Harding on BBC Radio 3 on 7 February 2012.