Into the Archives

Photo by Katherine L. BorrazzoPhoto by Katherine L. Borrazzo
The Harvard Crimson
October 20, 2015
By Shaun V. Gohel

A frayed French almanac, ornate, gold etchings lining the edge of its leather cover. The diary of suffragist Susan B. Anthony, blue ink splattered across its gossamer pages. A dusty vinyl record of the Grammy-winning hiphop standard, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” A 19th-century drum microscope, years of use having chipped away at its silver coat. It’s an eclectic set of items, spanning generations, continents, and lifestyles. And yet, all share one common quality: Each calls Harvard’s campus home, nestled away in one of the University’s several libraries and archives containing special collections.

Established at different points during the 20th and 21st centuries, these collections stand as a testament to the depth and breadth of scholarship that the college has long fostered. From the artifacts of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments to the poems of Emily Dickinson in Houghton Library, to the feminist art on the history of women in America in the Schlesinger Library to the vinyl records of the Hiphop Archive, the thousands of objects are as numerous as they are diverse. In allowing both College students and outside researchers to come face to face with such historically relevant primary sources—to examine the crinkling pages of artist Walter Crane’s illustrations or peruse the original poetry of John Keats—these collections not only promote rigorous study, but also serve as a conduit between the past and the modern world.

And yet despite the incredible academic opportunities these collections provide, they still struggle to attract the attention of much of the undergraduate population. Recently, collection teams have turned to technology to better engage with the student body, utilizing social media and digital archives to promote both aspects of their collections and potential learning experiences within the libraries. These efforts have proved quite successful, but regardless, the mere existence of the collections bodes well for Harvard. These special collections do more than bolster research opportunities; they preserve and illuminate the stories of the past.


While these unique collections are open for student use, outside researchers and graduate students continue to be the primary patrons. Brionna M. Atkins ’16, a research assistant at the Hiphop Archive, suggests that the imbalance in researcher and undergraduate engagement stems from how many undergraduates simply don’t realize these spaces exist, let alone that they are open to them. “There’s a certain subset of campus that knows about [the Hiphop Archive], and the people who know will come to events,” Atkins says. “But I don’t think most [undergraduates] are aware of it.” For those who are aware, like Atkins, interacting with the archives presents a chance to combine scholarship with personal interests. “It doesn’t feel like work to me. I’m a Sociology concentrator, so I’m combining things I’m working on academically with what I listen to in my free time,” she says.

Since College student attendance has consistently remained lower than that of researchers, several librarians have expressed interest in drawing more undergraduates to these special collections. “I don’t think we’re underutilized, but I do want Houghton to be utilized more,” says Thomas Hyry, the librarian of Houghton Library. “In addition to supporting advanced scholarship, we want to see Houghton as an intellectual center for undergraduates on campus. It’s important that they know about us and that we’re here to help.”

Marilyn Dunn, executive director of the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, agrees. “We would love to see more students come to the library,” she says. “We have graphic novels, rare books, inscribed copies, a number of workshops—lots of things students would particularly enjoy.”

Both librarians and administrators understand that the notion of “rare books” or “specialized collections” might potentially intimidate undergraduates from stepping inside the libraries, and their efforts to promote their material are often centered around dispelling that idea. “We really want undergraduates to see Houghton as their library as well,” Hyry says. “Over the last generation, things have really changed here. The attitude that this is an undergraduate’s library was tolerated maybe a generation ago, and then a generation before that actively discouraged, but we’ve really turned a corner.”

The online registration process required to interact with certain library collections can also act as a deterrent to interested students. Unlike in the cases of Widener and Lamont Libraries, undergraduates cannot simply walk into Houghton; instead, they must first fill out a brief form on the library website. “The library is a real intellectual nexus. To do research here, you have to go through a registration process, simply because we need to know just who’s inside,” Hyry says.

Marcyliena Morgan, executive director of Harvard’s Hiphop Archive and Research Institute, says that opening the collections to all undergraduates without screening them risks damaging, or potentially removing, the material inside. “The first hiphop magazine, ‘The Source,’ began here,” Morgan says. “We used to have every issue, but unfortunately, there were some people who felt they should have them more.”

Though the libraries encourage undergraduates to engage with their material, they understand that drawing the same numbers as Widener and the Natural History Museum libraries just simply isn’t feasible. “We’re different than a natural history museum; we just don’t have the infrastructure to have 150,000 people a year. It feels quite crowded when we have 40 people in our permanent exhibit,” says Dr. Jean-François Gauvin, administrative director of the CHSI. “We know our niche: teaching and research and engaging with the Harvard community.”


In recent months, the special collection teams have turned to technology to spread awareness of their materials. Several libraries have begun creating digital versions of various letters, books, and drawings in hopes of piquing the interest of Harvard undergraduates. There’s a growing trend in the idea that if students aren’t coming to the collections, then the collections will come to students. “We’re digitizing the larger, significant collections—Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Dorothy West—so if students can’t get here, they can still get the resources,” Dunn says, in reference to the Schlesinger’s materials. “We’re compensating for the fact that our materials do not circulate, because we want them to be available.”

Houghton Library has even turned to social media to share its material with the academic community, becoming one of the few Harvard collections with an Instagram. Using hashtags such as #watermarkwednesday and #theatrethursday, Houghton routinely posts images of illustrations, photos, and book covers from within its collection. “Social media platforms allow us to promote awareness of Houghton’s collections and services to new audiences,” Hyry says. “Maintaining an active presence on social media provides opportunities for students to learn from our collections in new contexts and, ideally, draw new researchers to the library.” And the strategy seems to be working: Hyry notes, “If you compare the number of undergraduates using Houghton’s reading rooms from last September to this September, we’ve seen a 46 percent growth.”

Other libraries use word-of-mouth tactics to draw Harvard affiliates and outside community members to their collections, often focusing on engaging patrons once they’re actually in the space. “We have guided tours with faculty and students, in addition to hands-on sessions in the library where we bring some of our objects out so people can interact with them,” Gauvin says. Recently, the CHSI team has turned to innovative ways of engaging students, including creating interactive games. For their exhibit on the Rawson Electrical Instrument Co., CHSI volunteers handed guests colorful cards with names and descriptions of famous scientific figures then encouraged the visitors to peruse the gallery in search of what each card was referencing. “The idea was to have people roam around the exhibit, learning more about the company in a fun way,” Gauvin says.

Though strategies for appealing to students differ among libraries, one goal remains constant: to emphasize that the collections are for everyone despite their specializations. The Schlesinger team, for example, hopes undergraduates will recognize that its collections are not solely geared toward those concentrating in Women, Gender, and Sexuality. “Although our collections document the history of women in America, it doesn’t mean the only things you can investigate are women’s studies,” Dunn says. “All of these records allow you to explore American history, because they document the lives of all people, just through a woman’s experience.”


Aside from manuscripts, watermarks and letters, among the collections’ most valuable offerings are the little-known employment and funding opportunities they provide students. This past summer, Alona M. Bach ’16 worked with CHSI through Harvard’s Summer Humanities and Arts Research Program. For Bach, part of the appeal of working at CHSI was the recurring opportunity to hidden secrets of the collection. “We were looking at [marble tablets], and we took these little squares...out of the frame and looked at them under UV light. All of a sudden, we could see place names and numbering systems previously hidden,” Bach says. “These objects are so easily accessible, and the possibility of discovering something new is just so exciting.”

Though not all undergraduates will end up seeking employment at the collections, the librarians agree that it is still possible to have this hands-on experience simply by visiting. The number of classrooms attending Houghton’s collections has increased in the past few months, a trend Hyry attributes to a burgeoning interest in an interactive approach to education. “Teaching has really changed. With a book like ‘Moby Dick,’ you can talk about that in front of people and have this abstract idea, or you can show them this manuscript of ‘Moby Dick’ along with the first edition,” Hyry says. “There’s something that can really come alive: The technical term I think is ‘experiential learning.’ We want to see Houghton as a center for that.”

Additionally, several of these academic spaces, including Houghton, Schlesinger, and the Hiphop Archive, offer monetary stipends for pursuing scholarly work linked to the collections, something of which officials want undergraduates to be more aware. “We have student fellowships that we award every year, for the summer or the school year, that provide students with up to $2,000,” Dunn says. “But these are under-applied for, so we would love to see more students express interest in these research grants.”

Past projects have included everything from papers covering the political participation of Middle Eastern immigrants in the post 9/11 era, to theories of how food trucks evolved from roach coaches, to podcasts about the Houghton library and its collections. Regardless of the subject, the fellowships provide students with the opportunity for a newfound appreciation for the academic material they use in their studies. “From looking at an object instead of just hearing about it, you can see how it was held, or find what spot might’ve been used the most; or if it was broken, see that someone cared about it enough to keep it and mend it,” Bach says. “You can really learn something about the value of an object.”


Regardless of fluctuating student attendance and the occasional opportunity left untaken, those running Harvard’s special collections are simply glad that such spaces for scholarship exist on campus. For some, the collections’ significance lies in their ability to weave threads between ostensibly unrelated topics. “There’s a history to hiphop that matters, one that’s connected to the history of the United States for the past 40 years,” Atkins says. “It illuminates the different things we study in academic disciplines, as well as speaks to them. And these connections are there, but we’re not necessarily making them.”

For others, the collections act as safeguards for historical voices at risk of being forgotten. “We do history here, and we’re an extraordinary resource for original scholarship,” Dunn says. “I suspect that women’s history would still be somewhat invisible if some of these prominent women archives—including the Schlesinger—didn’t exist.”

According to Morgan, the archives can even cultivate a greater sense of community. “People are really hungry for this,” Morgan says. “Hiphop—and the archive—is a symbol to so many people on what they can do, who they can be, and how they can dream. They think, ‘If a place like this exists, then I belong somewhere.’”

Nearly all, however, agree that the collections house more than historical artifacts; they act as repositories for the accounts of generations prior. “There are so many smaller stories that are hidden within the libraries themselves that have really never been worked on and can complicate received narratives of history,” Bach says. If anything, the items stored away in Harvard’s collections are vestibules. Each manuscript, correspondence, and piece of art bears with it a story of shared dreams, failures, and experiences that link the distant past to the present. The collections provide students with the opportunity to examine who we are, and also, to consider where we’ve come from.

—Shaun V. Gohel can be reached at

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