News & Ideas

The Library's Steady Expansion

Anne Engelhart and Ruth Hill, two longtime employees of the Schlesinger, have seen decades of change at the Library.

Anne Engelhart and Ruth Hill, two longtime employees of the Schlesinger, have seen decades of change at the Library. When Hill, the oral history coordinator, joined the staff, in 1977, and Engelhart, the head of collection services, in 1978, the Schlesinger was small and had few full-time employees. “It was tiny,” says Engelhart. “Like a mom-and-pop shop.” She cites a statistic from the Library’s 40th anniversary report of 1984: “Fifteen employees are listed, and many of them weren’t full-time. Now we have close to 40.”

Not only has the staff more than doubled, but the Library’s physical space has dramatically increased. The Schlesinger was renovated in the 1980s and again in 2004. Engelhart and Hill remember working in nearby Agassiz House and in the basement of Cronkhite during renovations. Each expansion strengthened the Schlesinger’s ability to serve a larger array of patrons.

Engelhart and Hill say that much of the Library’s growth in collections occurred in the 1970s, with second-wave feminism. “Everybody wanted to know about women’s history,” says Engelhart, “so they would come to us, and we welcomed a lot of collections and a lot of researchers who were outside the normal academic kind of folks.” New collections at the time included those of Betty Friedan and the National Organization for Women.

In the mid-70s, the Library also launched the Black Women Oral History Project, which Hill coordinated. “The project changed a lot of attitudes,” she says. “The Library was no longer just dealing with white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant women.”

Additional profound changes began in 1999, when the final merger occurred between Radcliffe College and Harvard, and Drew Gilpin Faust became the first dean of the Radcliffe Institute. By that time, the Library had a backlog of unprocessed collections, which often happens, Engelhart explains, with special collections libraries: “You never can predict how many linear feet will come in. One year, we got 700 feet of the Bill Baird collection, and just recently, the Angela Davis Papers came in at 150 feet.”

Faust, being a historian, had a special interest in the Schlesinger. She asked the Library what it would take to get rid of the backlog. “Those were heady years,” Engelhart says. “We hired another 12 to 13 people, and many of them stayed on.” The Library started catching up.

By 2010, the two largest manuscript and archival collections at Harvard—in linear feet—were the Harvard University Archives and Baker Library at Harvard Business School. Next largest were the Schlesinger, Countway Library at Harvard Medical School, and Houghton Library. The Schlesinger remains in third place according to the number of collections, after Harvard University Archives and Houghton Library. Not bad for a mom-and-pop operation.

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