Prince William Campus Library Named for George Mason’s Mentor

Posted: February 26, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Patty Snellings

When staff members at the Prince William Campus library recently rearranged shelves and added new ones to accommodate a growing collection, they were unwittingly preparing for another change of a different nature. The university’s Building Naming Committee announced that the library will be known as Mercer Library, named for Virginia colonist John Mercer, George Mason’s uncle and guardian. History recounts that Mercer’s personal library was the largest and best of its era in Virginia.

Mercer began his collection at his Marlborough plantation near Prince William County in 1725 with books and pamphlets purchased with silver and bushels of wheat. During the next several decades, his holdings grew to more than 1,500 volumes. In addition to an extensive legal inventory, Mercer’s library included the ancient and modern classics; volumes on philosophy, mathematics, and science; medical, farming, and gardening manuals; children’s textbooks; dictionaries; collections of poems and plays; essays and letters; and sermons and devotional readings.

There is no record of Mercer attending college, but his literary tastes indicate he was a man of culture. He and Mason’s father were partners in a trading venture, and he prepared himself to be an attorney by reading law. Mercer’s relationship with the legal profession was often contentious and further complicated by his sharp wit, caustic words, and intolerant manner. Although his disregard for professional protocol prompted a series of suspensions and reinstatements, his compilation of Virginia laws became the standard guide used by his colleagues.

George Mason was 9 years old at the time of his father’s death in 1735, and Mercer was a familiar figure in the future statesman’s life for the 12 years that followed. Mason was a frequent visitor at his uncle’s home and, according to Helen Hill Miller’s George Mason, Gentleman Revolutionary, Mason “… found a university in Mercer’s books.” He undoubtedly uncovered the foundation for his later work in Mercer’s legal resources and practical experience.

The university’s Mercer Library supports the programs and courses offered at the Prince William Campus and provides resources for corporate partners affiliated with the campus. Its collection has increased by 40 percent since the campus opened in 1997 and, according to head Librarian Heather Hannan, more patrons are taking advantage of what the library has to offer.

“January is traditionally the slowest month in terms of library traffic,” she explains. “During January 1998, approximately 100 visits were made to the library, compared with almost 700 visits in January 2004.” About 3,700 visits were logged during 1997-98, with an increase to more than 7,500 in 2002-03, she adds.

The library offers a full complement of services, including access to the university’s online catalog, networked CD-ROMs, and the Internet; orientation to the collections of the University Libraries’ system; reserves; circulation; interlibrary loan; and instruction and assistance in the use of research tools and strategies.

Circulation Supervisor Mary Buckley was recognized by Library Journal as one of the nation’s top “Movers & Shakers” in the library and information profession, and the entire Mercer staff received the inaugural Information Technology Unit Customer Service Excellency Award last year.

Community members and high school students use the library’s resources for science projects, health research, and genealogy exploration, and they also have the option of enrolling in the Passport Program, which offers circulation privileges.

“Our library–which began at the Prince William Institute, moved to the Prince William Campus, and is now known as the Mercer Library–is developing its own history through growth and change,” says Hannan. “It’s nice to have it bear the name of a man who built a similar legacy in Virginia.”

The Building Naming Committee is charged with recommending names for campus buildings or areas until such time as donors come forth with qualifying contributions to have buildings named after them. The interim names are approved by the Executive Council.

mercer library
Teresa Kan, reserves coordinator and reference assistant, sits in the newly named Mercer Library on the Prince William Campus.
Photo by Mary Buckley

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