Harvard University’s Houghton Library usually buzzes with scholars engaged in research, but on the day before Christmas Eve the space exuded a more relaxed atmosphere. A forthcoming story and its swiftly approaching deadline occasioned my visit, and it turned out that the half-day before the library closed for a weeklong winter break yielded more time with librarians who might otherwise be engaged in bibliocentric endeavors.
As it was, librarian Susan Halpert, a three-decade veteran of the Houghton, graciously explained the finer points of wrangling Harvard’s vast books and manuscripts database, then whisked us through the Emily Dickinson Room, the John Keats Room, and the recently completed Hyde suite, which houses what is perhaps the finest collection of Samuel Johnson material outside the U.K. Until recently, the Hyde suite was reserved for non-academic purposes, but now roughly 250 different courses utilize the resources here throughout the semester.
In an effort to welcome more students to the library, the Houghton launched a summer fellowship program in 2015 specifically aimed at undergraduate students. Fellowship participants receive a stipend of $2,850 and participate in an exploratory, ten-week research opportunity that encourages academic inquiry while also alleviating some of the intimidation inherent in facing the sheer breadth and scope of Harvard’s holdings.The results have been impressive; one of last year’s fellows, current senior Jess Clay, used the Houghton’s collection of drawings and papers by John James Audubon to explore the naturalist’s role in American Romanticism, and also compared Audubon’s drawings to poems by Emily Dickinson and fables by Jean de la Fontaine. Clay’s efforts resulted in an exhibition entitled, Sublime and Manifest: The American Romanticism of John James Audubon, on display in the Keats Room at the Houghton through February 2017.
The tour of the Houghton’s inner sanctum concluded at noon, and it was time for the library to shutter its doors. By 12:01, not a creature was stirring.
Flyer for undergraduate presentation at Harvard. Image Credit: Barbara Richter