Since 1942, Harvard’s Houghton Library has focused on preserving a trove of collections that together represent almost the full scope of the history of the written word. Yesterday evening, over one hundred professors, librarians, and friends gathered at Houghton to commemorate the library’s seventy-five years of existence. Festivities opened with a lecture held at the stately Loeb House by Carl Pforzheimer University professor Ann Blair, who discussed the importance of preserving and using primary materials while highlighting the enduring need for libraries to transmit knowledge to posterity, especially in the digital age. Afterwards, participants made the quick walk past trees unfurling their fragrant blossoms to Houghton Library, where a book launch party and exhibition awaited in the ground-level Edison and Newman Room.
Entitled Houghton Library at 75 ($25, Harvard University Press) and edited by assistant curator of modern books and manuscripts Heather Cole and Hyde collection curator John T. Overholt, the publication offers a glimpse of the myriad holdings that fill the library’s shelves. From third century Greek papyri and European incunables to the Gutenberg Bible and drawings by John James Audubon, how do you choose the cream of the crop? The curators gamely rose to the challenge of selecting seventy-five items that they felt represent the breadth of the library’s holdings. The Bullard portrait of Emily Dickinson and her siblings, William Blake’s hand-colored Europe a Prophecy, and Shakespeare’s First Folio are three examples included in the book.
Meanwhile, HIST 75: A Masterclass on Houghton Library, is the first in a series of year-long exhibitions, lectures, movie screenings, tours, and other events celebrating these precious pieces and the place that keeps them safe. Forty-six of Houghton’s treasures were selected for display by faculty members who based their criteria for inclusion on whether the item had been useful for research, teaching, or provided inspiration somewhere along the line. Blair chose an English writing tablet from 1581 with pages in the middle treated with a chemical to harden them, creating a reusable writing surface (portable stylus included), while fellow Pforzheimer University professor Robert Darnton selected a volume of Emerson’s Essays with Herman Melville’s lively annotations scribbled in the margins.
The festivites also aimed to raise awareness that the Houghton’s collections are not intended to gather dust and be forgotten; rather, these items are meant to help fulfill the core mission of Harvard--to educate through a commitment to the “transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education.” Though access was restricted in the library’s early years, today many of the collections are available for up-close examination, either by visiting the library or by consulting Harvard’s vast and freely accessible digitized archives. The push to invite a new generation to Houghton is working: last year no less than 283 classes were held in the library, hailing from nearly every discipline.
After a tour of the exhibition and enjoying a spread of wine and cheese, partygoers departed, hopefully inspired to return and spend more time among the materials that define our shared human experience.
Learn more about Houghton’s 75th celebrations, including forthcoming events, here.