John Muir near Hetch Hetchy Valley, California

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Pacific News

John Muir legacy lives strong at Pacific

University is repository for largest known collection of his papers, journals, sketches, photos
Mar 18, 2014

John Muir spurred an environmental movement that continues to gain steam a century after his death.

A connection to the Scottish-born naturalist, one of the most important figures in California history, runs deep at University of the Pacific - blood and books deep.

Five Muir descendants and three of their spouses have attended Pacific, forging a relationship through which most of all known Muir-produced materials have made their way to the Holt-Atherton Special Collection in the Pacific Library.

It is a connection that has allowed generations of Pacific students the rare opportunity to conduct historical and environmental research using Muir's own letters, journals, notebooks, manuscripts, and drawings.

"The papers are primary sources that can help us to understand Muir's rawest thoughts," said Michael Wurtz, Pacific archivist. "They are documentation of the mind of Muir, who understood the importance of having and preserving nature and natural spaces for us to retreat to when needed.

John Muir writing papers"The value to our students is remarkable in that many universities have rare manuscript collections, but they do not share them with undergraduate students without special permission," said Wurtz. "Here at Pacific, we encourage professors to have students come to the collections."

The Muir-Hanna Trust, formed by Muir's descendants, selected Pacific as a repository for the materials in 1970. The John Muir Papers at Pacific include about 7,000 letters to and from Muir and his family, 78 journals, 27 notebooks, more than 300 drawings, more than 2,000 photographs, hundreds of his manuscripts, and about 600 books by authors that were in his personal library. Muir's desk and two of his bookshelves are also part of the collection, among several other items.

The Muir collection is an invaluable addition to the university's collection of Western Americana, said William Swagerty, a professor of history at University of the Pacific and director of Pacific's John Muir Center.

"It's a strong collection," said Swagerty. "One can't really start a book on Muir or finish it without coming here."

About 2,500 scholars a year use the Holt-Atherton Special Collections, including the John Muir Papers. These scholars have included Donald Worster, who spent time at Pacific doing research for his 2008 book "A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir." And members of acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns' team consulted with Holt-Atherton Special Collections staff during research for "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" series, which premiered on PBS in September 2009, and subsequent follow-ups.

The university is engaged in ongoing work to transcribe and digitize Muir's journals to make them more accessible to students and researchers. A team of half a dozen community volunteers and nearly 40 student volunteers has already transcribed 20 of Muir's 78 journals.

Over the years, Muir has become synonymous with conservation, partly because of conferences such as the one that will be hosted at Pacific this month, the eighth Muir conference sponsored by the university since 1980.

John Muir outside his Martinez, CA houseThe public portion of this year's conference, "What has been saved; what has been lost: John Muir's Legacy, 1914-2014," will take place from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Saturday, March 22, at Grace Covell Hall. A reception will follow.

The symposium will include presentations from Muir scholars from around the world, including Terry Gifford, Graham White, Ronald Eber, Doug Scott and Stephen Holmes. Award-winning British author Andrea Wulf, who is working on a biography of Prussian geographer, naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, will be the keynote speaker.

Cost for the symposium is $35 for the general public and $25 for students before March 18, and $40 for the general public and $30 for students at the door. The cost includes a light breakfast, buffet lunch of Scottish food, and reception afterward.

University of the Pacific's John Muir Papers collection is accessible online by going to http://go.pacific.edu/specialcollections and clicking on "John Muir Papers." Once there, click on "Transcriptions" in the left column to learn about volunteering to help transcribe Muir's papers.

To learn more about John Muir, visit the university's John Muir Center website at http://go.pacific.edu/johnmuir. The Center promotes the study of Muir and environmentalism at University of the Pacific and beyond.

To visit the online Western Americana collection at Pacific, go to: http://www.pacific.edu/Library/Find/Holt-Atherton-Special-Collections/Western-Americana.html.

Media contact:
Keith Michaud
209.946.3275 (Office)
209.470.3206 (Mobile)
kmichaud@pacific.edu