John Davis Barnett (1849-1926)

Published on September 04, 2018

"A book and three quarters for every day I had lived"

By Anne Daniel & Theresa Regnier, Western Archives

John Davis Barnett Reading Room PortraitJohn Davis Barnett was the first major donor to Western Libraries. He was critical to the growth of the libraries at Western. John Davis Barnett lived in a small house in Stratford, Ontario. He came to Canada in 1866 and brought a modest collection of books with him. He spoke about how he had joined a book club when he was 12 years old. He did not remember a time when "a book was not a satisfactory thing to possess, but he was conscious of the desire to collect when he reached Canada." Barnett continued to add to his collection and for work purposes, he traveled the Grand Trunk Railway all over Eastern Canada and collected books. He continually added to his library every year with particular emphasis on the study of Shakespeare - his Shakespearian collection numbered more than 1500 bound volumes.

His little home in Stratford was so full of books that he joked that the "books held up the house."

In 1918, he became concerned about the future of his collection. An early will had left all the books to McGill University with the proviso that if McGill did not accept the collection it was to be given to the Dominion Government as the nucleus for a national library. He changed his mind and on July 30, 1918 travelled from Stratford to London to discuss the matter with Fred Landon (librarian of the London Public Library). Included in that discussion was C.R. Somerville, Chairman of the Board of Governors of Western University.

"As the collection had swelled he had hoped that it might become the nucleus of a national library but in the end the persuasive voice and smile of Mr. Landon had brought the collection to London," Somerville said.

In August 1918, he donated more than 40,000 volumes to Western University Libraries. At that time, the collection was housed on Cheapside Street (east of Waterloo St) in what was known as the "library annex."

John Davis BarnettHis gift was accompanied by several conditions: he wanted his books to be available to "any earnest seeker after knowledge" whether in the university or out of it; he didn't want his collections to be kept separate in any way from the general collections of the university but they are easily recognized because they all contain his bookplate.

Western Libraries hosted a banquet to honour John Davis Barnett at Tecumseh Hotel in February 1919. Guests included the Board of Governors, faculty and other prominent members of the community. At the banquet, the Chairman of the Board of Governors, Dr. Waller "told of his dream of a university library of the future."

"When young men could dream such dreams, it was remarkable to see a man of Mr. Barnett's years dreaming to such good effect," said Dr. Waller. "His wonderful library made available new opportunities to higher education and culture, of which the donor was so eminent an example."

His gift of books was considered to be the largest single gift ever received by any library in Canada - consisting of more than 40,000 bound volumes together with many thousand pamphlets. Principal Waller of Huron College, chairman of the library committee "declared with one stroke of a pen that he had done more for the university than any other man."

It was agreed that Dr. Barnett would come to London and become the curator of the collection as well as actively add to it. Barnett is said to have had an encyclopedic knowledge of the scope and contents of the books, so the gift to Western increased in value with the addition of Barnett himself.

The books remained in the "annex" until they were moved to main campus in the summer of 1924.

When he was out and about in London he met many people, all of whom asked many questions. The first question was "What started you on this collection?" Another popular question was "And have you read them all?" This question was answered by explaining that "in the collection there were more books than I've lived days in this wicked world."

From 1919 to 1922, Dr. Barnett acted as Western's first librarian and managed the collection. At the end of 1922, he suffered a fall and a series of strokes, which left him, paralyzed. He spent his later years at the Victoria Home for the Incurables.

He also bequeathed his entire estate of $5098.29 to Western Libraries. The entire sum was to go toward "furthering the University of Western Ontario Library." His estate consisted of debentures that totaled $4624, and cash in the bank of $463.

Barnett BookplateThe University conferred the degree of Doctor of Laws upon him in 1919 "recognizing in this way the great benefaction which it had received at his hands." Western University was closed on the day of his funeral in 1926 and all classes were suspended.

In the James Alexander and Ellen Rea Benson Special Collections (Western Archives) there are approximately 3300 titles from Barnett's collection. Many of his books contain his bookplate. We have included a picture of his bookplate to the right.

A keyword search of the Shared Library Catalogue will yield all of the titles that reside in special collections. We have included a few sample titles below.

Barnett's portrait hangs in a prominent position in the Western Archives Reading Room as a reminder of how his significant donation shaped Western Libraries.

Western Libraries is celebrating Barnett's extraordinary gift to the University this fall. Learn more about the activities we have planned.

To build on John Davis Barnett's visionary gift to Western, Western Libraries is advancing a project to share knowledge with anyone, anywhere, by digitizing important elements of our unique collection. Learn more about this project to extend the reach of our collection further than Barnett could have ever imagined.


  • "A Book and Three Quarters for Every Day of His Life" (newspaper clipping)
  • "Benefactor of University Dr. J.D. Barnett, Passed" (London Advertiser March 22, 1926 newspaper clipping)
  • Dr. John Davis Barnett Scholar, Book-Lover Dies After a Lengthy Illness" (LFP March 22, 1926 newspaper clipping)
  • The Late John D. Barnett (newspaper clipping March 22, 1926)


Sample Titles / Call Numbers

  • PA3876.A2 1542 Aristophanis, comicoru principis, Comoediae undecim, e Graeco in Latinu, ad uerbum transatae, Andrea Divo Iustinopolitano interprete.
  • AY13.N4 A new almanacke and prognostication
  • D915.B86 Several years travels through Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, Prussia, Sweden, Denmark, and the United Provinces. Performed by a gentleman.
  • BX890.C37 1478 Decretalium libri V. Gregorii Papæ cum ordinaria glossa Berhardi
  • E449.D7 Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave