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Library Staffer Digs JMU History
by Reba Leiding


“Harrisonburg Gets Normal.”  So begins the first entry in "James Madison University: 1908-1959, an Annotated Historical Timeline,” researched by history graduate and Carrier Library staff member Sean Crowley, using a headline from the Harrisonburg Daily Times announcing the founding of the new teacher’s college. 

The timeline thoroughly examines the first 50 years in JMU’s history.  “I enjoy research, I like to dig,” Sean explains.  His timeline has almost 300 entries, and includes dates and additional information that are more than simple annotations.  “I try to make each entry explanatory and interesting by explaining background, how it was important to the school.”  He used Raymond Dingledine’s history Madison College : the First Fifty Years, 1908-1958 as a starting point, then explored the primary sources available in Carrier Library’s Special Collections.   Although not an “official” archive of the university, Special Collections contains material such as Faculty and Board of Visitors’ minutes, vertical files containing pamphlets, flyers, and other ephemera pertaining to JMU, and microfilm archives of the Breeze, Harrisonburg Daily Times, and Daily News Record.  He also went to the County Court House, researching the original deed for the property that became JMU.

Sean Crowley and Julia Merkel  

 Sean Crowley and Julia Merkel, Carrier

        Library Preservation Specialist


Sean completed an early version of the timeline for a history internship with the Library’s Special Collections, in Spring Semester, 2006, but has used the summer months to conduct more in-depth research and to further verify secondary sources.

While he focused primarily on institutional history, Sean found many interesting facts about JMU life as he did his research.  Even though Sean was a student and a staff person for several years, he said, “I knew nothing about JMU, so for me it was all fresh and new.”

Before coming to JMU, Sean pursued a music career in Hollywood for a while.  As a student at JMU, he was an Individualized Study Major in the Adult Degree Program, and graduated in May with a concentration in American Studies.  He has worked in Carrier Library since 2001, starting part-time in Circulation, moving to a position in Cataloging, and is currently working in Acquisitions.  He plans to work there during the coming year before going to graduate school for a Masters in Library Science.

Did he find any surprises in his research?  “I’m very rarely shocked,” Sean says.  “I was surprised how interesting it turned out to be.  It’s made my time at JMU more rich.  Now I look at a building and realize what came before.”


Library History:  For example, the library started in Room 9, Maury Hall, and then occupied most of the first floor in Harrison Hall.  Memorial Library was built in 1939.  From the beginning, students complained about the library stacks, Sean said, which were closed.  Students had to request a book from the Public Services Desk and wait while staff retrieved it.  The room that is now the Library Conference Room was a reading room containing non-academic materials.  A children’s literature collection was reported to be housed next door in the area where administrative offices are now located.


Sean researched the first books acquired by the library.  The first five hand-written library accession logs are in Special Collections.  The Library’s first book was a Bible donated by Hollins Institute, but is no longer in the library (unlike accessions, no record was kept of withdrawals or lost books).  An early book that is still in the collection was #7, an American Library Association book on reference collections.  It is stamped with all the various names JMU has had throughout its history.


The library’s first microform reader was acquired in 1946, Sean said, and evidently it was portable.  This information was from an article in the Breeze!


Sean notes that faculty and Board of Visitors minutes from the early years were the most interesting to research because they are a record of the major decisions and dates.  For example, he was able to follow the Board’s efforts to find a suitable location for the school and to select the first president.  He also learned that the faculty provided the initiative for the school’s yearbook, originally called The Schoolma’am


Breeze History:  The Breeze was also an important source for JMU history, but Sean learned much about the paper’s history as well.  Published since 1922, it ran its first pictures in 1923:  portraits of the two commencement speakers.  Sean also learned that in January, 1943, students tried to change the paper’s name.  Students called the name “foolish, ill-chosen, and non-representative,” Sean said.  “They really slammed it.”  In a student vote with three choices, Madisonian received 274 votes, Mad Cap received 270, and the Breeze got 78, but the vote was overridden by a faculty committee on publications.


The timeline isn’t the only historical document Sean has produced this year.  He also completed his senior thesis on the history of the Freedom of Information Act up to March, 2006.  It soon will be a part of the thesis collection housed in Carrier Library.  At 284 pages, it is one of the longest undergraduate theses at JMU.


The JMU timeline will be added to Special Collections, says Julia Merkel, Carrier Library’s preservation specialist and Sean’s advisor on the Special Collections internship, so library users will have access to its information.  It will also have a presence on the web, through either Special Collections’ Centennial Resources page or Fred Hilton’s Madison Century pages. However the timeline is presented, we all will get a chance to benefit from Sean’s research and learn more about the early history of JMU.

Special Collections is accepting internship applications. Find more information on the Special Collections web site.

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