UWM: Geography Scholar and Wife Set Major BEquest to AGS Library


A distinguished geography scholar and his wife have committed to a
seven-figure bequest to the American Geographical Society Library (AGSL),
housed at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Robert McColl, professor emeritus of geography and East Asian studies at the University of Kansas, and Suzanne Ecke McColl recently completed plans to provide this major bequest.

“Essentially, the AGS Library is a national treasure,” says McColl, of the couple’s decision. Housed at UWM since 1978, the library contains more than one million items, including maps, atlases, books, journals, pamphlets, photos, Landsat images and digital spatial data.

Five years ago, McColl donated his own unique collection of Chinese geographic materials to the library.

Both decisions grew out of his own view of geography as more than computer simulations and satellite maps, says McColl.

“Geography is about people and land and history,” says McColl, and the AGS library collection paints that broad picture. “You can look at the clothes people are wearing in old pictures, trace climate changes, and more.”

“The AGSL has done the most for the country in providing and conserving material that is useful both for government and scholarship,” says McColl. Its collection is “much more substantive” than any other in the country and has a significant history because of its ties to the American Geographical Society, founded in the 1850s.

The AGSL collection, one of the largest and most valuable of its kind in the world, was transferred to the UWM Libraries from the society’s headquarters in New York, and serves as a resource to geographers worldwide. McColl says he would like to see the AGS Library become “the Alexandria Library of geography,” reaching the legendary status of the ancient world’s most famous library.

The McColls’ bequest will be used to offer enhanced fellowship programs, bring in scholars from around the country and around the world, hold symposia and publish related materials, expand acquisitions, and help make the collection available digitally, says Christopher Baruth, curator of the AGS Library. The McColls are also making a number of current gifts to enable the AGSL to initiate several projects right away.

“We are most grateful for the McColls’ generosity, which is establishing a legacy that will support researchers for years to come,” says Ewa Barczyk, interim director of the UWM Libraries.

McColl, a California native, fell in love with the subject of geography after receiving his B.A. degree in East Asian Studies. “I got into geography by accident,” he says. “I’d never taken a geography course before.”

After earning a fellowship to do graduate work, he found geography was the “Renaissance subject.” It was perfect, he says, for exploring all the topics he was interested in – “politics, history, natural science.” Much of his research and writing has focused on political geography.

After earning his doctorate, he began teaching, researching and traveling extensively, particularly in China and East Asia. He is the only American and one of only five foreigners ever to be made an honorary member of the Institute of Geography of the
Mongolian Academy of Science. He retired from the University of Kansas in 2003, though he and Suzanne McColl continue to travel widely.

“Bob McColl is a geographer of the highest standing as well as a longtime friend of the American Geographical Society,” says Baruth. The collection of items he donated to UWM was one of the best personal collections of Chinese materials in the world. Many of the items are not available elsewhere, even in the Library of Congress, says McColl.

“I went to China early enough that I found some items that are terribly unique, that might have disappeared otherwise,” says McColl. Through his contacts in China, he found many works and maps that might have been produced in limited quantities or pulled off the market. “The Chinese publishers were always happy to see me.” He also found rare books, sometimes bound in silk, in flea markets. “People were selling them for food.”

“We want our commitment to encourage others who have collections of maps and materials of other areas of the world to consider donating them to the AGS Libraries so they can be preserved for the future,” says McColl. He adds that the planned gift is also intended to inspire others to contribute to that “national treasure” housed at UWM.

CONTACT: Lucia Petrie, 414-229-3011 or Ewa Barczyk, 229-6200.