One More Trophy for the Trove

Bancroft Honors a Rare Hunter-Gatherer of U.S. Western Treasures

Michael Harrison, 99 years old, collects. He collects rare books. He collects Indian artifacts. He collects art. And on April 19 he collected one more thing: Bancroft Library's new top prize for contributions to history and its preservation.

Called the Hubert Howe Bancroft award, it goes to Harrison for a lifetime of finding and protecting irreplaceable treasures of the western U.S. The Bancroft Library, which houses Berkeley's famous historical collection, presented the new award to Harrison on Cal Day.

Though Harrison numbers many important works from the 1850s in his huge collection, he doesn't play favorites with his treasures.

"You ask a mother who her favorite child is and see what you get. I love them all," said Harrison.

Harrison says his almost 100 years is not nearly enough to build the kind of collection he's after. He still works until 10 every night to secure new finds and catalog old ones from his home in Sacramento County.

"Time for me is getting short because in eight months I'll be 100 years old," said Harrison. "So I don't want to waste time. I don't have much of it to waste."

The 20,000 volumes and hundreds of smaller publications Harrison and his late wife, Margaret Baker Harrison, assembled are slated to become the nucleus of a new historic collection at UC Davis.

Though it might seem like competition from a sister campus, Berkeley is all for it. According to The Bancroft Library, a second UC Western Americana collection will divide the state's rare books so "all the eggs aren't in one basket" and will better serve historians in the Sacramento area.

"It's a very large comprehensive collection. This will take us to a new level," said Davis rare book librarian John Sherlock. "One of the things about Mike's collection is his ingenuity in putting it together. He went to considerable lengths to track things down."

Harrison is so frugal, he even outwitted the Scots, said Sherlock. When Harrison needed an issue of a historic magazine from Scotland and the dealer priced it hundreds of dollars too high, Harrison found the publisher still had copies on hand, available for just a little over $2.

"So he sent them a check for $3," said Sherlock. "And they wrote back 'You now have a credit of 27 cents.' So then he ordered something else and when they sent the bill, he wrote back and said, 'Oh, by the way, maybe you don't remember I have a credit for 27 cents.' They apologized."

Many Californians like to build collections of all kinds, said Anthony Bliss, rare book curator for The Bancroft Library.

"I think it goes back to hunter-gatherer days. You just don't eat all your acorns at once. You save a few. It's in our genes," said Bliss.

However, "private collectors, more than the libraries, find stuff," he said. "They bring it out of the attics....You look at a case like Mike Harrison, so single-minded and devoted to what he does, he doesn't work at it eight hours a day; he works 25 hours a day. He sleeps, eats and breathes his collections."

Harrison also "had the luck of the draw from the longevity genes," said Bliss admiringly.

Born in New Jersey and with only a high school education, Harrison has always been interested in history.

"I was the world's youngest historical revisionist," said Harrison. "In grade school I wrote a paper on patriots of the American Revolution. My paper said the men who participated in the Boston Tea Party were not patriots but lawbreakers."

Those are fighting words in Harrison's home town of Paterson, N.J., founded by Alexander Hamilton. But Harrison isn't one to keep opinions to himself.

He began collecting 74 years ago when he was a park ranger stationed at the Grand Canyon. He eventually acquired so many volumes, he had to have the first floor of his house propped up to hold the weight.

"So my wife and I built a new home to house our library," he said.

Bucking the technology trend, Harrison has no use for computers to catalog his collection. His card file fills a large room. He dubbed his index method, "Harrison's Peculiar System."

"By hand he sits there with every new book he acquires and adds in something like 30 subject entries," said Sherlock. "He indexes down to the individual personalities in the book. As far as we're aware, there's nothing else like it anywhere."

No one incident triggered Harrison's collecting mania, "but how could you have an interest in history and not collect the material you learn about it from?" asked Harrison. "Besides, it keeps me out of the corner pool room."



Copyright 1997, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
Comments? E-mail