Until the 1990s, Houghton’s doors were made of steel. They added to the building’s prohibitive architecture, making the library Harvard Yard’s Fort Knox, an impenetrable place that seemed open only to the select few. Harvard’s rare books and manuscripts library was, then, a place where undergraduates did not often tread. When in 1995 the ominous steel doors were replaced by a set of transparent doors leading from the foyer to the lobby, Houghton also seemed to open itself up to a new millennium; a new diaphanous portal was about to shine a whole different light upon its hallowed collections.
I came across Houghton for the first time on a chilly December morning during my freshman year at Harvard. Nothing had prepared me to see what I saw that day: papyri, illuminated manuscripts, an original copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, T. S. Eliot’s copy of Dante’s Commedia. I could not believe that I was in the room with those priceless artifacts— that I had direct, personal access to physical objects that were so pivotal and influential to human culture and civilization.
I had the opportunity to go back to Houghton twice more during my first year, but hoped for even more and began brainstorming ideas for one of the undergraduate fellowships Houghton offered in the summer. Talking to my friends about the library and the world of possibilities it opened for any Harvard undergraduate, however, was, at the very least, a frustrating task. Most of my peers were not even aware of Houghton’s existence, let alone of the impressive array of knowledge housed inside the library. This was when I began to develop the idea for this guide. If students only knew what they could hold and and explore by crossing Houghton’s threshold, maybe they would be more encouraged to delve into the library’s collections and make use of them in their Harvard College careers. Was there a way to disseminate knowledge of the collection around the College?
That is when I hit another issue surrounding Houghton. The library’s fortes are, of course, its collections linked to the study of the humanities, especially history and literature. Catering to students in the Arts and Humanities division would not be a hard task; in fact, a good number of those undergraduates have at least already heard of Houghton, if not used its collections in one way or another. What about students in the Social Sciences, the Sciences, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences? Did Houghton have materials to entice undergraduates in those areas? Did the library have items to bring in students from every single one of the College’s concentrations?
On the very first day of freshman year, as I moved into Canaday, I got a copy of the 49 Book, Harvard’s concentration guide. Maybe that is what Houghton needed—a 49 Book of its own, in which students could look for their concentration and discover at least a fraction of everything the library holds and how it can be of use to them. At first, imagining the Herculean task ahead, I envisioned only two items per concentration: an illustrious object that would be recognizable by any student in the field and a more anonymous article that students would only be able to find at Houghton.
When I finally arrived at the library at the beginning of the summer to begin conducting research into its archive and to find these 49 pairs of items, I quickly realized that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to restrict my exploration of Houghton to two pieces per concentration. As I began compiling lists of materials, I noticed that two items would not capture the complexity of each concentration and of the Houghton collection at large. Te guide strives to take into account the multifarious nature of some concentrations, which, though a unified field, cannot under any circumstance be boiled down to two examples. Each concentration blurb, then, became a selection, rather than a couple, of suggestions, and this reflects, more than anything, the sheer amount of material that Houghton can offer to the students of Harvard College. Tough this 49 Book only possesses 48 entries—Special Concentrations, as a multidisciplinary field reliant on individual projects, was not included—I hope it provides a holistic picture of the diversity of material present at Houghton Library and of the myriad academic possibilities that Harvard offers its pupils.
Multidisciplinary, in many ways, was the buzzword that marked my summer. My job was quasi-taxonomic in many ways, and it is easy to think of it as sorting a variety of items into a sole category. That is, at least, how I envisioned it. After one week had gone by, however, I began to understand that neither the items nor Harvard’s concentrations were discrete compendia of knowledge floating in an academic nether space. As I explored each item brought up to me from the stacks, I quickly perceived that they did not only fit one concentration, but multiple. In fact, the end of the last century saw the rise of areas of study dedicated to a multidisciplinary approach to key issues. These areas focus specifically on women and groups traditionally not present in the academic dialogue, and it is not always easy to find material about these underrepresented populations in a space whose primary goal, throughout its history, was to store the knowledge of Western Civilization.
Surprisingly enough, however, the amount of material connected to the Harvard concentrations that ft the model described above—especially African and African American Studies; East Asian Studies; Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations; South Asian Studies; and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies—present at Houghton is staggering. Furthermore, the library itself is seeking to expand its collection beyond the traditional Western tradition. Leslie Morris, Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts, has spearheaded the effort to acquire materials related to the Latinx community, for instance, and the library has increased its collection of queer materials in recent years. Furthermore, Houghton has tried to keep pace with social movements as they unfold, collecting material related to Occupy Harvard as the protests occurred.
Related to the relative modernity of diversity is the question of technology and its role in the functioning of libraries in this new century. A lot of Houghton’s holdings are online. The library keeps a Tumblr, in which it posts some of its most interesting objects, and focused projects seek to digitize at least certain parts of the archive completely. However, large swathes of the collection are not catalogued online or do not even have a HOLLIS record. As multiple librarians explained to me this summer, there is a trade-off between long, detailed descriptions ix of items and the amount of material that can be catalogued. As cataloguers, Houghton librarians are always deciding whether they want to provide in-depth catalogs of a few objects or multiple superficial descriptions, and, because of the subjective nature of the task, it is almost impossible to be consistent over time. This issue is thorny because of the impact cataloguing has on searching: a superficial catalog might not turn up when necessary while a detailed one might be easier to find.
These technological challenges only highlight the importance of Houghton’s librarians. All of them are wells of knowledge when it comes to the library’s archive, and asking them for help is often the best way to find the perfect item. However, it is important not only to know what to research, but also how to research. According to Susan Halpert, who has been a reference librarian at Houghton for 36 years, learning how to find materials gives a student “access to possibility,” and that is infinitely useful and rewarding inside and outside of a library. Halpert is also adamant in affirming the importance of the material aspect of the collection in our increasingly virtual world: at Houghton, there is a certain “amazement at the physicality of things,” a vital importance attributed not only to the objects’ content, but also to their format. Te Houghton archive is a testament not only to knowledge itself, but also to its transmission through the ages. In an age when everything is available at the click of a button, there is something awe-inspiring about a papyrus or a medieval manuscript that preserves the only known copy of a text. As Dennis Marnon, Houghton’s administrative officer, concluded, “The history of human life is the history of loss and destruction,” and that destruction has often taken its toll on human knowledge. Without these materials, our culture and civilization would be unrecognizable.
In 1992, during its 50th anniversary symposium, Houghton worked to address the problem of exclusivity. The physical space of the library has already become more welcoming, and, gradually, more undergraduate classes are making their way to Houghton and utilizing all of the resources the library has to offer. Furthermore, the partnership between the Summer Humanities and Arts Research Program (SHARP) and Houghton, which began in 2016 and allows undergraduates to conduct personal research projects in the library during the summer, should increase the library’s undergraduate population even more. This is also the mission of this guide. Houghton does have something to offer to every single student at Harvard College, and every undergraduate can and should make use of its resources in their four years here. The doors are now not only transparent but always open—come in!
Arthur Schott-Lopes ’19
A.B. Candidate in History
Secondary Field in the Classics
Houghton Library 75th Anniversary Fellow