Exhibition: Ragtime to Riches – a Musical Legacy at the Bodleian Library, Bodleian Library, Oxford, until January 29 2012
© Bodleian Libraries
In 1974, Chicago ragtime pianist Walter Harding gave the Bodleian their largest ever donation by handing over the most exhaustive collection of 17th and 18th century popular music and verse in the world, packed in a 20-ton haul of 900 boxes which were flown to Oxford by two chartered planes.
The contents ranged from Italian part books to broadsheet ballads, miniature theatres and 200-year-old French operas, meticulously and lovingly indexed in Harding's library.
"Walter Harding's ability to collect on such a scale, despite modest means, is impressive and inspiring," says curator Abigail Williams, who calls this show of his spirit "a detective story about obsession, philanthropy and one extraordinary man's passion for the past."
"The display tells his story for the first time, reconstructed from the archives. He is an unsung hero, and a man whose foresight preserved a lost world of popular music at a time 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."
Harding was the son of an East End bricklayer, but emigrated to Chicago in the 1900s, playing ragtime accompaniment to silent cinema and in an a downtown church despite his lack of musical and academic education.
His feverish collecting, according to the Library, reflected his sense of displacement and desire to connect with a history he had never known.
And in some respects he was actually helped by the times – the depression and crash he lived through resulted in a flood of books.
He had never even visited Oxford, so Head of Rare Books Clive Hurst is hopeful Harding can enthuse contemporary cataloguers.
"His collection constitutes a remarkable resource for scholarship in many fields," he says.
"We hope that his story will inspire similar generosity in others to support our libraries."
- Open 9am-7pm (4.30pm Saturday, 11am-5pm Sunday). Admission free.