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Marcus McCorison, 86; expanded role of American Antiquarian Society

Mr. McCorison led the Worcester-based society for a quarter-century.

Mr. McCorison led the Worcester-based society for a quarter-century.

For Marcus McCorison, spending time at work could be its own reward as he roamed the treasures of history housed at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester.

“My greatest pleasure came from working in the collections,” he wrote in 1992, shortly before retiring as president. “During those first few years, I inspected every inch of our twenty miles of bookshelves, every drawer of prints, every box of pamphlets, every corner of the stacks.”

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By the end of his tenure, such an endeavor would take longer, as the society added about 115,000 items to a collection that now includes about 680,000 books and pamphlets, which Mr. McCorison was eager to share with scholars around the world.

“I was convinced that unless readers actually came to Worcester to use the library,” he wrote, “they could form no idea of the richness of our holdings.”

Mr. McCorison, who spent 32 years with the American Antiquarian Society, including a quarter-century as its leader, died Feb. 3 in Knollwood Nursing Center after a period of declining health. He was 86 and had lived in Worcester since beginning work with the society in 1960.

“When he started at the Antiquarian Society, it was really a small, limited institution, with a very small endowment and not very intensive use by scholars,” said Georgia Barnhill, a curator of graphic arts emeritus who worked at the society with Mr. McCorison.

“He was extremely successful in fund-raising and raising the profile of the institution, bringing in scholars from all over the United States and abroad to do research there,” she said.

Mr. McCorison wrote that while he led the society, its endowment increased by sixfold to more than $21.7 million, and its annual budget increased even more rapidly, from more than $159,000 to $2.1 million.

Such prodigious fund-raising allowed him to make improvements to Antiquarian Hall, the main building on the organization’s five-acre campus, hire more curators and staff, create online access to materials, and institute a fellowship program to attract scholars.

“He always knew what he was doing and where he was going, where he was leading the society,” Barnhill said. “He was really quite a force, I must say, but a positive force.”

A scholar and bibliographer himself, Mr. McCorison had studied to be a librarian and wrote numerous books and articles through the years. As a college student in Wisconsin, he decided that the distribution of books and pamphlets themselves played a key role in how history unfolded.

“I became interested in books and their history, the history of printing and publishing, and librarianship more than forty years ago while an undergraduate at Ripon College,” he wrote in 1991 as part of what he called a personal narrative.

“It seemed to me then, as it does now,” he wrote, “that Christian, Western, and by extension American, culture pivoted significantly upon dissemination of the printed word.”

The older of two children, Marcus Allen McCorison was born in Lancaster, Wis.

After high school, he served in the Naval Reserve at the end of World War II, stationed in the Pacific theater.

Mr. McCorison graduated in 1950 from Ripon College with a bachelor’s degree in English; he married Janet Buckbee Knop the same day. The McCorisons had six children. Mrs. McCorison died in 1998.

“This is the other thing about Dad,” said his daughter, Judith Gove of Camden, Maine. “He was multitasking constantly. So he’s graduating from college, marrying Mom, going off to war. He was a man of prodigious energy and intellect.”

In 1951, he graduated from the University of Vermont with a master’s degree, after studying English and American history, and then served in Korea as a first lieutenant with the Army Reserve, having signed up for ROTC while studying at Ripon. Three years later, he graduated from Columbia University with a master’s in library service.

He began in his career in Vermont’s capital, as librarian of the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier. After a year he moved for four years to Dartmouth College, where he became chief of the rare book department.

He took an academic library job in Iowa, but hadn’t even sold his home in New England by the time he was offered a chance to become the librarian of the American Antiquarian Society in 1960. He was named director in 1967; the title was changed to president in 1989. He was president emeritus after retiring in 1992.

As part of his push to expand the society’s horizons, he was active in numerous local and national organizations, and even some clubs on the West Coast.

“I think what amazes me about Dad is just the way he connected with so many people,” his daughter said. “He had a wife and children. He had the Antiquarian Society, all those associations he was a member of. He was engaged and connected in all those different spheres and just a huge presence in all of them.”

His son James of Worcester said Mr. McCorison “was a man of very strong opinions. He fought for his point of view.” He added that his father also was “a kind person with a generous heart.”

Roger Stoddard, former curator of rare books at Harvard College Library, called Mr. McCorison “one of the most successful collectors of books for institutional collections,” and said that when he spoke at an 85th birthday gathering for Mr. McCorison, he called him “ ‘king of libraries,’ and he liked that very much. It’s really correct for him because he became an international library leader.”

A service has been held for Mr. McCorison, who in addition to his daughter Judith and son James leaves his companion, Carolyn Knight Dik of Worcester; three other sons, Marcus II of Killingworth, Conn., Andrew of Durham, N.C., and Peter of Fort Fairfield, Maine; a sister, Virginia Simmons of Del Norte, Colo.; and 11 grandchildren.

While leading the American Antiquarian Society, Mr. McCorison “was so dedicated that it was easy to follow him,” Barnhill said.

“He instilled a great sense of service in his young staff members, way back when,” she said. “We were there to serve the readers, to serve scholars. He really set a great example for all of us, and he really brought the Antiquarian Society into contact with the other great research libraries in the country. We were no longer just confined to Worcester. It was really quite a great experience.”

Bryan Marquard
can be reached at
bmarquard@globe.com.

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