Skip to main content

James A. Riley Collection of Mississippi Documents, Newspapers, and Letters

 Unprocessed Collection
Identifier: M23

Scope and Contents

Large collection of books, printed material, and memorabilia related to Mississippi and other subjects.


  • Creation: 1646-to date


Conditions Governing Access

Noncirculating; available for research.

Conditions Governing Use

This collection may be protected from unauthorized copying by the Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17, United States Code).

Biographical / Historical

Mr. James A. Riley and his wife, Corneil, donated tens of thousands of books, periodicals, maps, manuscripts, and ephemera of all descriptions to The University of Southern Mississippi Libraries. Their gifts are housed in the de Grummond Children's Literature Collection, USM Archives, Mississippiana, and Cook circulating collections.

James A. Riley was born in New Hebron, Mississippi, in 1927. The family moved to Collins for his high school years, but at the young age of 16 Mr. Riley decided to join the war effort and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. During World War II, his family moved to Hattiesburg, where his father could be closer to his work at Camp Shelby. When the young soldier returned, he joined his family in Hattiesburg and began working at the A&P Grocery on South Main.

The G.I. Bill provided Mr. Riley with the opportunity to attend college, and he enrolled at The University of Southern Mississippi. As a student of History, English and Spanish, he spent many hours in the library conducting research. According to Mr. Riley, the library was sorely lacking in the types of materials he needed, and he continually pestered the head librarian, Anna Roberts, for books. They became great friends, and it was Ms. Roberts who prompted Mr. Riley's initial donations. Upon Ms. Roberts' request, he donated a collection of Life magazines dating from the 1920s. Mr. Riley's mother volunteered at the library until she was 80 years old.

Mr. Riley worked on translating Spanish law documents at the Mississippi Department of Archives of History (MDAH), where he met William D. McCain, who was head of the MDAH at the time. The relationship proved fortuitous, as Dr. McCain would later serve as president of The University of Southern Mississippi and play a role in Mr. Riley's continued donations to the library.

Mr. Riley married and moved to Georgia to pursue a master's degree in history and political science at the University of Georgia. He went on to work as an insurance claims adjuster and to move with his wife around the country. Working in the claims business necessitated extensive travel, and Mrs. Riley accompanied him on these trips. She enjoyed visiting the flea markets, antique stores, and garage sales in the new cities they visited. She had an eye for the "good stuff" and picked up trinkets for a bargain. At one flea market in Wisconsin she came across an old mechanical pencil with the USM logo attached. She bought it, and the couple donated it to the USM archives for posterity.

By the 1960s, the Rileys had become serious collectors. Mrs. Riley became very interested in what she called "financial documents," which included banking papers and checks printed before 1920, when the tax on checks was lifted. In 1985 Mrs. Riley focused her collecting on children's books and began donating titles to the de Grummond Children's Literature Collection at Southern Miss. The couple also picked up modern first editions, maps, manuscripts, newspapers, land deeds, pamphlets, and other ephemera. The couple continued collecting and donating a wide range of materials up until Mrs. Riley's death in 1995, and Mr. Riley carries on the activities to this day.

Rural garage sales yield the best finds for the lowest prices, according to the seasoned collector. He has found many personal accounts, letters, and diaries this way. Mr. Riley also discovered several signed John Grisham works at a garage sale for just a few dollars each. Mr. Riley believes that by the time most items arrive at the flea market, the prices are unreasonable. He has formed relationships with many dealers across the coast from Brownsville, Texas, to Panama City, Florida, and can usually get a bargain in exchange for his repeat business.

Although the Rileys participated in collecting as a way of enjoying each other and their lives as a retired couple, they also promoted history and the preservation of our cultural heritage. It was their hope that others would learn of their donations and become inspired to follow suit. When they first returned to Hattiesburg, Mr. Riley opened a shop downtown selling stamps, coins, and historical artifacts. He was disappointed to find that local residents were not interested in Mississippi history. When he closed his store, he contacted Dr. McCain at Southern Miss and donated historical materials, such as Confederate rosters and supply orders, to the library.

Personal writings such as diaries and letters provide first-hand accounts of the life of Americans at a particular point in the nation's history. Primary sources like these are an invaluable resource to a special collection, and Mr. and Mrs. Riley's gifts have made a real impact in this area. One donation, a set of letters between a soldier and his wife during the Civil War, documents history in a way that interpretive texts cannot. Another, a diary, details a young Mississippi college student's experiences away at school. Such things enlighten and inform researchers and become the substance behind historical and cultural scholarship. Pamphlets and other ephemeral items are another area where the Riley donations have enhanced the library's holdings. Though perhaps widely distributed and made easily available, such materials are often not considered worthy of historical study and are not saved. The rise of cultural studies, along with the popularity of social history, is increasing the demand for these types of materials. Fortunately, the Rileys were already hard at work collecting such things and added them to the thousands of items donated over the years. In an appraisal document, Dr. McCain states, "Some of the printed items (pamphlets) may be unique in that they may not be deposited in any other library. "

To explain where he might have inherited his sense of history and collecting, Mr. Riley tells the story of a great uncle, Franklin L. Riley. Franklin Riley was a professor of history at the University of Mississippi at the turn of the 20th century. According to James Riley, Mississippi government officials decided that they no longer had room to store the old state records and were going to throw them away. Franklin Riley discovered this shocking turn of events and rushed to intervene. He managed to save a portion of the archive, and it was those documents that formed the foundation of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.


18 Cubic Feet (total)

Language of Materials



Mr. James A. Riley.


Contents of collection


University Libraries, "Library Focus (Spring 2001)" (2001). Library Focus. 23.

James A. Riley Collection of Mississippi Documents, Newspapers, and Letters
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Historical Manuscripts and Photographs Repository

118 College Drive - 5148
Hattiesburg MS 39406-0001