Finding Inspiration in the Schlesinger Library

Photo by Kathleen DooherPhoto by Kathleen Dooher
By Joan Wickersham

The Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe is full of stories. There are stories contained in printed matter: novels, memoirs, biographies, and periodicals. There are stories in handwritten documents—letters and journals. There are stories told, silently but eloquently, by artifacts: a dressmaker’s notebook filled with samples of buttonholes; a collection of handwritten recipes, whose splotches and stains attest to frequent use; a T-shirt from an early feminist rally.

And then there are stories of the people who visit the library—of why they seek out the Schlesinger and how they make use of it. As novelist Allegra Goodman ’89, RI ’07 says, “Libraries aren’t just about information anymore. What makes libraries special is the people—the librarians.”

The Imaginary Collection

When Goodman began her Radcliffe Institute fellowship, in the fall of 2006, she knew she wanted to work on a novel about a character who collects cookbooks but doesn’t cook. Nancy F. Cott, the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library and Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History at Harvard, suggested that Goodman talk to Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, food scholar, writer, and longtime honorary curator of the library’s renowned culinary collection.

“Talking to Barbara was the moment when the novel came together,” Goodman says of the conversation in which Wheaton described what might motivate someone to collect cookbooks. “Suddenly I could see what the passion is.”

The passion for collecting, Wheaton believes, “often begins because cookbooks evoke memories—things that connect people to their own past. Sometimes there’s an interest in an ethnic culinary heritage, or in community cookbooks from where they grew up. But it can grow into an obsession. It can bend people out of shape, become financially ruinous, and eventually ruin any joy in the cookbooks themselves.”

Goodman says of her novel The Cookbook Collector (Dial Press, 2010), “The psychology of collecting is very important. The story is set during the dot-com bubble, and there’s a lot about the search for love and fame, and the desire to keep acquiring.”

Together, Goodman and Wheaton curated an imaginary cookbook collection. “Barbara would suggest we include this book and that book,” Goodman says. “All the books were real, but in the case of something very rare, we might create another extant copy. At one point, as the list got more and more exciting, Barbara started fanning herself and said, ‘You do realize, Allegra, that I’m consumed with lust.’”

Wheaton enjoyed working with Goodman partly because “Allegra was pursuing the material in the collection in a different way,” she says. “It’s refreshing to be asked questions that make us see things differently. I didn’t want to interfere with her writing; I thought my job was to supply her with a buffet she could make her meal from.”

Reflecting further on the Schlesinger and how different people use the collection, Wheaton says, “Everybody begins by knowing nothing. I walked in years ago as a user and picked up my first medieval cookbook with a mind full of ignorance, but I just kept plugging away.”

A Voice from the Past

Mia Walker ’10 came to the Schlesinger Library as a student in a seminar taught by Alice A. Jardine, professor 
of romance languages and literatures and of studies of women, gender, and sexuality, called “I Like Ike, but I Love Lucy: Women, Popular Culture, and the 1950s.” Reference librarian Sarah Hutcheon had assembled a selection of materials from the library—photographs, manuscripts, books, and periodicals—in order to vividly illuminate the era and also to introduce the students to the depth and breadth of the Schlesinger’s collections. Among Hutcheon’s picks was a series of letters written by Susan (Suzy) Houston Reid ’62 while she was a student at Radcliffe. “Her voice just jumped out at me,” Walker says. “I picked up the folder and I don’t think I heard another word anyone said during that entire hour.”

Reading the letters, which Suzy Houston wrote to her parents back home in Texas between 1958 and 1962, Walker discovered a voice that was both of its time and timeless. “She was very smart. Her perspective is dramatic, honest, incredibly astute. There is so much joy, and so much of the comedy of everyday life, but she’s in touch with some darker part of reality.”

Inspired by the freshness and intelligence of Houston’s voice, Walker began writing a play. She returned to the Schlesinger again and again, sitting in the reading room with her laptop, reading the letters and making notes. “I got the idea to create a dramatic story around the letters,” Walker says. “She writes about Plato and Camus and tells about a date with the sophomore jock. And then there will be a tonal shift: She’ll tell her parents that she’s ‘in the blues,’ but then assures them that all she needs is some sleep. ‘I will conform,’ she writes.”

Walker’s play features Suzy Houston’s interior voice and paints a portrait of Radcliffe in the late 1950s. “The bell desk in the dorm became a dramatic device. And cake—they were always serving cake!” Houston and her friends loved Broadway musicals, and Freud was much on their minds. At a recent public reading of Walker’s as-yet-untitled play, the audience laughed at Suzy’s lighthearted observation that her roommate had decided Saint Augustine must be a Freudian, since he wrote so much about his mom.

At the same time, Walker feels, “There just can’t be that much of a difference between her world and mine. Or perhaps the world I’m living in is the way it is because of voices like hers.”

Reference librarian Hutcheon is fascinated by what Walker did with the materials shown to the “I Like Ike” class. “I think the way we present things to students can make a difference. Susan’s box of letters is just a box, but we showed it with photos of Radcliffe students from the ’50s, a student handbook, a yearbook, and the college newspaper—and suddenly it’s in a context, it’s alive. It’s wonderful to introduce students to the collection and show them how to find things, but often we don’t know what they do with it. I was really excited to learn what Mia was doing because theater and art is a different kind of use.”

Old Objects, New Contexts

As they did with Allegra Goodman and Mia Walker, the Schlesinger’s librarians often play a pivotal role in inspiring and informing the efforts of the faculty members, students, scholars, artists,
 and members of the public who use the library. As Ellen Shea, head of public services for the Schlesinger, points out, “Every in-person visit is mediated through a librarian, because everything we have is behind a vault door. We’re not just going to answer your question, we’re going to say, ‘Oh, you’re interested in this—do you know that we also have that?’”

An upcoming exhibit of objects drawn from Harvard’s many museums and libraries offers an example of how faculty members collaborate with librarians to view old objects in new contexts. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the 300th Anniversary University Professor, and Ivan Gaskell, the Margaret S. Winthrop Curator of Paintings, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts in the Harvard Art Museum, are planning the exhibit in conjunction with a new general education course, “Harvard Collections in World History.” “Our idea is to begin with a core exhibit that shows a microcosm of Harvard collections in a gallery at the Science Center,” Ulrich explains. “But then we’ll feature a series of ‘guest objects’—items from one Harvard collection that would show up in another. The idea is to open up the idea of how we categorize objects.” For instance, Ulrich suggests, summer-camp beadwork from the Schlesinger’s collections might take on a different meaning if displayed alongside Native American beadwork from the Peabody Museum’s Hall of the North American Indian.

By the time Schlesinger librarians meet with Ulrich to spread out objects on a table and discuss which ones
 might figure in the exhibit, they will have done a lot of brainstorming among themselves. Because the staff members—librarians, manuscript processors, archivists—know the collection so well, they can hear an idea like Ulrich and Gaskell’s and start imagining items that might be interesting. “You have to be able to think across categories,” Sarah Hutcheon says. “For instance, if someone is looking for material about polio, you might remember that a colleague mentioned that a box of family papers came in with a lot of references to polio.”

Ellen Shea points out that the process of finding imaginative new uses for the historical materials is not only invigorating—“that’s why we love working here”—but also ongoing. “Someone will see Laurel and Ivan’s exhibit, which takes such a different direction, and then will be inspired to go in another different direction.”

The meaning of a particular book
 or paper or object is always chang
ing, depending on who is looking at it, when, and why. As Barbara Wheaton says, “The Harvard library system holds things safely until the time comes for someone to see them and make sense of them in a new way.”

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