Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College
College History



Professor James D. Butler, Commencement speaker

Dr. James Davie Butler, LL.D., the first Professor of Latin and Greek at State University, Madison, Wisconsin (University of Wisconsin) spoke at Commencement.

James Davie Butler, born in Rutland, VT on 15 March 1815, graduated from Middlebury College in 1836. He became a Congregational minister, but held chairs of ancient languages at Wabash College from 1854 to 1858, and at the University of Wisconsin from 1858 to 1867.  After leaving the University, he remained in Madison and devoted himself to lecturing and writing until his death in 1905.

The New York Times reported on the 1874 National Education Association meeting in Detroit, where Butler read a paper entitled "Classical Studies in the Higher Institutions of Education", in which he "defended the study of the classics as a source of culture which could not be dispensed with."

An active member of the Wisconsin State Historical Society, Butler frequently published and lectured on the prehistoric history of the state, servied on various committees, and in 1876 published an Historical Sketch of the Society.

See an image of Prof. Butler in his library, from the University of Wisconsin Archives.

In 1875, Butler's dedication address for the new Free Public Library in Madison, Wisconsin, entitled "Libraries as Leaven", was published in the American Bibliopolist. His remarks reveal his wide interests and reading:

It is no objection to a library that no man will ever read it through.  No man will read through his dictionary, and time is not long enough for a man to read all the words in the daily Tribune. Nor will any customer exhaust a store. Yet he demands an assortment from which to select the little that he needs. In every library most authors, bound up in congenial calf, sleep soundly in their own sheets. Yet the dust of dead men's bones, at the touch of genius, comes forth in a new life. How much that is best in Macaulay ... is extracted from bibliothecal rubbish— or reading which had never been read. Hence even Samson could not say to the jaw-bone of an ass: "I have no need of you." The wise thank God for fools. They get their living out of them, and mostly out of the greatest fools. In truth, no library is large enough. Guizot and Michelet complain of inability to consult certain books, even in that Parisian library, where books are as plenty as water in the deluge, and the shelves would reach from here to Milwaukee....

A library should be a cosmos; but it is a chaos till arrangement, catalogues and librarians bring us at once the volume we desire, and which, without them, would be as hard to fish up as the Atlantic cable lost in mid-ocean....

What investigators seek they will not find at once; they may never find it.  But they are sure to discover something better, so that they will say with Lessing, in the library at Wolfenbuttel, "Were God to hold truth in one hand and search in the other, and give me my choice, I would say: Give me seeking without finding, rather than finding without seeking!"...

All truths being inter-dependent, every road will lead to the end of the world, and so while studying one subject a man becomes interested in others, and his range of inquiry expands.  When he kindles one dry stick, many green ones will catch, and his brightest blazes are lit up by unexpected sparks....

The influences of a library are cumulative, and sometimes become manifest only after a long lapse of ages. The cuniform library of Assyrian bricks, dating from pre-historic periods, burned up, buried and forgotten just now emerges from its grave speaking in a voice heard round the world, and no less authoritative than a second book of Genesis.  From its shelves more centuries look down upon us than upon Napoleon at the Pyramids....

Libraries are hemmed in by no lines of State, nation, race, language, religion or century.  Their field is the world.  But ours is the cosmopolitan age, and we are pre-eminently the cosmopolitan people.  More than any other people, then must we feel the need of libraries, which are, of all institutions, most cosmopolitan.  Hence they will benefit us most.

[published in The Library and Society: Reprints of Papers and Addresses, edited by Arthur Elmore Bostwick. New York: The H. W. Wilson Company, 1921.]

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