Houghton has a call number for Chemistry, and there are hundreds of materials that fall under the category. However, as a science concentration, the subject is much more prone to looking to the future than to the past to answer questions and find new lines of inquiry. A collection steeped in history, therefore, might not be the concentrator’s first option when choosing where and what to research.
One of the hallmarks of Houghton as a library, however, is its commitment the universality of history across different disciplines. The study of the past pervades everything, and it is key to understand yesterday to be able to have a fresh look at today and tomorrow. Houghton might not be a lab, but it contains materials that explain the history behind modern science and its wonders.
Historically speaking, therefore, the library has plenty—from a fifteenth-century manuscript with Hippocrates’ pharmaceutical recommendations (MS Fr 124, 009180489) to John Locke’s 1661 edition of Robert Boyle’s The Sceptical Chymist (EC65 B6976 661s, 004576795) and the papers of Edwin Herbert Hall (MS Am 1734, 000601801), a Harvard physics professor who also researched chemical topics such as atomic structure and ionization. Other interesting items include a sixteenth-century French treatise on fireworks (Chem 7205.56*, 004460244) and tracts about specific elements and their properties, such as a nineteenth-century book of experiments and observations on gold alloys (Chem 7320.16, 003087760) and an eighteenth-century volume about iron and its use in cannons (Chem 7237.75, 003024726). These two last items, as well as many other pieces of the collection, are in French; the Chemistry call number also yields results in German, Latin, and other foreign languages. Studies involving this material, therefore, can also involve disciplines such as Romance Languages and Literatures, Germanic Languages and Literatures, and the Classics.
There are less orthodox ways of applying modern chemical concepts to the Houghton collections, however. One of the library’s most peculiar items is Phoebe Jane Easton’s research collection on marbled paper (MS Typ 1155, 013333828). Marbled paper, which adorns many inner covers of Houghton books, is an art form dependent on the chemistry of pigments and on chemical properties such as adhesion. Students interested in the final product also have access to the Loring collection (52L-1000, 011066122), the largest of its kind in the world. The artifacts in the archive are real-world applications of processes that could be studied in a lab, and researching Houghton’s collection can bring many concepts learned in class to life through tangible examples.
Finally, many recent projects concerning manuscripts and early printed books, called incunabula, make heavy use of chemistry to discover information about items whose origins are often mysterious. The Books and Beasts project, for instance, which made use of some Houghton materials some years ago, was able to identify different animals’ hides and track manuscript movements across medieval Europe through chemical analysis of bookbindings and text, also revealing the beasts’ diets and genetic makeup. A joint venture between scientists and historians, the project has not only enlightened archivists seeking to answer questions about provenance and bibliography but also revealed much about medieval and early modern European trade networks and the continent’s ecological conditions at the time.