“A sure and perpetual foundation, accessible to all…”

Justin Smith Morrill, in the text of the 1862 bill that created land-grant colleges and changed the face of education worldwide, wrote that each of these schools must have “a sure and perpetual foundation, accessible to all.”

In 2012, public institutions across the country held scholarly symposia, forums, convocations, celebrations, and more to honor the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Morrill Act. Preserving, analyzing and drawing lessons from the history of the Morrill Act and of public universities across the nation is of vital importance.

To meet this need and as a continued celebration of the Morrill Act it is proposed that the land-grant university community meet Morrill’s implicit expectation to build a central repository and outreach program for research on the history of the land-grant college movement.

Origins & Purpose

In 2011-2012, several universities, colleges and professional societies across the United States held celebrations to mark the sesquicentennial of the Morrill Land-Grant College Act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln. From small campus meetings to large affairs attracting scholars from across the globe, these conferences not only produced a flurry of remarkable new research into seemingly every aspect of land grant history; they sparked a new interest in this field itself. The present effort to create a central repository for land-grant history grows from this new enthusiasm, but it does so knowing that things disappear. It is an effort to capture this and earlier scholarship and to sustain this research momentum.

In order to be successful, this repository should be housed at one institution committed to building and sustaining the effort, and Mississippi State University is willing to undertake that role. However, this cannot be viewed as a Mississippi State project but rather must be a collaborative effort of the land grant activities, recognizing the substantial work of many other individuals and institutions.

A critical part of making this a project of the whole community is to establish a national panel of experts from across the country to help drive the repository’s work.

This national repository will serve as a means to collect and disseminate historical information about land-grant colleges. It will contain both primary and secondary sources—everything from Morrill’s own writings to the laboratory notebooks of an A & M scientist, from academic articles about state funding to a dissertation about the history of soil science research—some of which will be centrally housed on the repository and some of which will be linked from the archive to external sites. The repository will be more than simply a collection. Rather, it will be living, breathing research endeavor overseen by historians sensitive to the issues land grant schools and their faculty, staff, and students, have faced over the past century and a half. This repository will be an ever-changing collection of documents, bibliographies, lists of paper sessions and conferences, etc., all housed at one central website. It is essential to identify resources from all land-grant institutions that be linked from this repository.

We believe a digital hub like this will have many audiences. The most obvious is academic historians who will indeed find immediate uses in the collection. A one-stop shop for both primary sources and recent interpretations will have broad influence on the work being done. But this project will also serve as the best place for scholars to take the temperature of the field, to see who is doing what research where and based on what materials. Beyond historians, however, the repository will be a go-to site for public policymakers, lobbyists, college and university administrators, the media and others looking for either historical precedent, funding information, or even to locate a specific scholar who can aid their cause in some way.

In addition to collecting and disseminating primary and secondary sources on land grant history, this virtual archive will strive to guide further research. It will plan and sponsor sessions at academic conferences, to guarantee that land grant history is part of the larger scholarly debate; it will also promote land grant history-related conferences, be an organizer of meetings around the anniversaries of the Smith Lever Act, Hatch Act, the 1890 Morrill Act, and other landmark historical events. This effort is, then, not only about keeping this research safe and in a central place, but also about inspiring and leading a new generation of land-grant research.


The proposed center will be based in the history department at Mississippi State University where much of the MSU work is now taking place. As home to a Ph.D. program with existing emphases in agricultural history and the history of science and technology, MSU History has the faculty, staff, digital humanities librarians, administrative support and students to create and house the archive and execute the outreach programming components. The department also hosts the Agricultural History Society, an international scholarly body founded in 1919. Alan Marcus, an expert in land-grant history, will serve as director. A national advisory board composed of scholars representing institutions throughout America will regularly discuss the programming and development of the virtual archive and meet at least yearly. The archive itself will be housed on MSU servers and use campus disk space to house the documents and other materials and be maintained by the Information Technology Services division.

As suggested above, far beyond Mississippi State, there will need to be a sustained relationship with scholars working on these issues. Only with the cooperation and input from myriad sources across the nation will this repository be successful. Combining the talent and resources of the land-grant community will ensure the long-term success.

For at least the first few years of its operation, archive construction will be the order of business. Graduate students in history will collect material and links. Digital humanities librarians will help organize it, ensuring that search engines and other finding aids reflect state of the art understandings. MSU web designers will construct the main site and repository initially, but the upkeep and management of this central clearinghouse will fall to history faculty and staff. Links need to be checked, maintained and updated as new information goes on line. A schedule developed for that purpose is a must. Graduate students will also oversee the archive’s listserv, Facebook page, Twitter account, and other social media outlets as they rise and fall to guarantee the effort’s prominence and accessibility.


This project must be a project of the whole community with a strong national board and MSU proposes to host the project. This project has the opportunity to protect, for the foreseeable future, the histories created recently around the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act and to build on them. It can assure that historical and other scholarship on land-grant universities flourishes in the future.

For this project to reach its full potential, it is crucial that the archive not simply be a vault of information, but that it be a force to reach out to scholars, administrators, and the interested public, to put land grant history in front of people rather than passively waiting for virtual visitors to appear. This is a fluid project, not a static snapshot of land grant universities. This virtual archive and outreach center will ensure that for historical research, as Justin Morrill intended for the land grant institutions themselves, there will be “A sure and perpetual foundation, accessible to all…”

Exterior of Morrill Hall at the university of Nevada
Morrill Hall, University of Nevada, Reno
Senator Justin Smith Morrill
Exterior of Morrill Hall at Cornell University
Morrill Hall, Cornell University