Profile: Bill Reeder – Zoologist, Library Advocate, and Scholar

September 23, 2021 By John J. Magnuson, Board Member, Friends of the UW-Madison Libraries.

William G. Reeder’s interest in animals and natural history, as well as his love of old books and libraries, began in his childhood in Los Angeles, CA. Bill clearly remembers a grade-school teacher who helped the young students provide scientific names for the plants in the school’s garden; this seemingly simple event significantly influenced Bill’s relationship to the natural world. During the same years, his father was a high school teacher of book binding, and Bill accompanied his father and his father’s graphic arts club on trips to museums and libraries.

This confluence of nature and old books proved pivotal. Bill’s interest in old books greatly influenced his interest in animals and systematics, and his interest in animals greatly influenced his love of beautiful old natural history books. At an early age, Bill began collecting seashells along the beaches of Los Angeles. His high school was only a few blocks from the Los Angeles County Museum and a shop where a bookseller sold used books. He visited both frequently. His mollusk collection must have been quite good, evinced by the fact that as a high school student, he traded his shell collection for several rare books, one of which had woodcuts from the 1500s. The stage was set for two of Bill’s major life pursuits.

Animals and books were only two pieces of diversity that captured his curiosity. Bill became more focused both on animal systematics, zoological museums, and historically important books as he continued through college at UCLA, and during his Ph.D. work in the 1950s at the University of Michigan.

One of three studies of West Indian birds and fish by an unknown artist. Watercolor, pencil, ink. [Caribbean region?], [1741] in hand-ruled mats. Localities mentioned include Cuba, Jamaica, St. Christopher (St. Kitts), Dominica, and cities in Colombia and Venezuela. Gift to Special Collections from the Friends of the UW-Madison Libraries in honor of William G. Reeder. Photo courtesy of UW-Madison Special Collections. 

In 1957 Bill was hired as a faculty member by the Zoology Department and later as the Director of the Zoology Museum at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He taught the Biology of Vertebrates, Field Zoology, and Introduction to Zoology. About 25 graduate students did their theses and dissertations with his guidance. Bill’s class on Biology of Vertebrates included trips to Special Collections in the Memorial Library. Bill collaborated on these class trips with librarians John Tedeschi, Robin Rider, and the staff who would ferret out volumes, some containing beautiful woodcuts of animals from expeditions around the globe.  Bill, then and today, strongly believes that libraries and especially Special Collections should be used and appreciated by university students. Bill and Tedeschi became good friends during those years. Their friendship and mutual respect catalyzed their joint efforts through the Friends of the University Libraries for many years.

In 1978 Bill resigned his professorship at UW-Madison and moved to the University of Texas at Austin where he became Director of the Texas Memorial Museum and professor of Zoology. He maintained his friendship with John Tedeschi and his interest in the library continued. An early product of their relationship was the significant exhibition, “Instauratio Magna,” that was organized in Special Collections in 1988-9. This was in support of a major push from Chancellor Donna Shalala, who stated “Without first-rate libraries, we could not build the future on the past. We could not utilize our laboratories. The process of education and discovery would erode and diminish. This exhibit celebrates the quality of our library collections and the vital role they play in our university.” The organization and choice of books for the exhibition were made by Tedeschi. Bill edited the catalog that beautifully demonstrated the breadth and depth of the UW-Madison Library’s Special Collections.

Without first-rate libraries, we could not build the future on the past. We could not utilize our laboratories. The process of education and discovery would erode and diminish. This exhibit celebrates the quality of our library collections and the vital role they play in our university.

– Chancellor Donna Shalala, 1988

After extensive discussion with library staff and the Friends, the Dean of Libraries, Kaye Gapen, established a UW Libraries Special Advisory Committee on Financing in 1989. Bill was asked to chair the committee even though he was still at the UT-Austin. The committee recognized that, up until then, the Friends of the Libraries had not been a fund-raising body; it was concerned instead with library collections and functions.

In 1993, Bill retired from the University of Texas and returned to Madison to be near family. Tedeschi recommended that Bill be placed on the Friends of the Libraries board as an ex-officio member; he served in this capacity from 1993-4 through 2000-1 as a Special Consultant. At this same time, Bill’s generous funding to the library enabled specific purchases for Special Collections of books about the History of Science and the History of the Book. He also gave books from his personal collection to Special Collections that resulted in an exhibit of Reeder Family Books in 1992-3 along with a catalog. He became a regular member of the Friends Board in 1991-2, vice president in 2002-3, and president from 2003-4 through 2005-6. As his term as president came to close, he volunteered as a researcher at the UW-Zoological Museum in 2005; that work continues to this day.

Bill Reeder with Asian pheasant in March 2019 (photo by Katy Reeder at the Zoology Museum, Noland Hall, Madison, WI

The Memorial Library and Special Collections are indeed special, providing unique opportunities for faculty and students to explore and interact with rare materials in collaboration with expert library staff. Bill was a passionate advocate for these types of interactions when he led the Board of the Friends of the Library. He also continued his interest in seeing the Friends of the Library and Special Collections supported financially. He commented as he completed his term of president of the Board, that the Friends needed to have its annual budget doubled to protect against future uncertainties. He takes some pleasure in that persons who heard his comments later acted to double the Friends’ foundation funding.

I thank Bill and his daughter, Katy, for chatting with me about his interest in the systematics of animals, his interest in old books, libraries, and antiquities, and his interactions with the UW-Madison Libraries. I thank Laura Damon-Moore for most helpful editing.

Sources:

July 20, 2021, Conversation with William G. Reeder and his daughter, Katy, at the Reeder home.

Kleinhenz, Christopher. 2009. The Friends of the UW-Libraries; a History of the First Sixty Years. Parallel Press, University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, Madison, Wisconsin.