A Privilege to Lead

Nancy Cott introducing Judy Chicago, March 2014. Photo by Tony RinaldoNancy Cott introducing Judy Chicago, March 2014. Photo by Tony Rinaldo
By Nancy F. Cott

This spring will be my last as director of the Schlesinger Library. My dozen years here have been wonderfully stimulating and rewarding. From colleagues on the staff, I have learned far more about the demands and possibilities of archival management than I ever knew as a historian using these materials.

The Digital Arena

During this time, the landscape of library technologies has vastly changed. The Schlesinger Library has become a leader in the digital arena, both in collecting born-digital materials and in employing newly available digital tools. I’ve especially admired and appreciated the determination of Marilyn Dunn, our executive director, to maintain the library’s reputation for state-of-the-art archival technology and for documenting women’s lives.

A Talented Staff

It has been a tremendous advantage for me to work with talented and dedicated staff members who have moved briskly with the times, adopting new methods when appropriate, while superbly performing the jobs for which they were trained. Their professional skills and phenomenal devotion to doing their work well have made the library an institutional leader in its field and an exceptional place for researchers to pursue their interests.

Time after time, students and established scholars—both inside and outside Harvard—have let me know of their immense appreciation for the collections they could access and for the guidance they received while conducting research at the Schlesinger. These gratifying reports have come to my ears only because staff members have worked so well individually and collaboratively—never resting on their laurels, but relentlessly improving collections, processing, and access.

The Library Council

It has also been a pleasure to work with the members of the Schlesinger Library Council. These important supporters of the library—many of them with us since I organized the council in 2003—have served as a sounding board for policy shifts and have offered their feedback on pressing matters concerning technology, fundraising, and acquisitions. I have benefited from their wit and wisdom and welcomed their moral support.

A New Reading Room

As I look back, I think of what a special privilege it was to be here in the very early years of the Radcliffe Institute, when I worked with sister historian Drew Gilpin Faust, then the dean, setting plans for new programs, projects, and conferences. There was no doubt about her full support for the Schlesinger Library. Under her leadership—and that of both subsequent deans—the library has been far better supported than it was as part of Radcliffe College. I was thrilled that she shared my conviction that the library’s magnificent holdings merited a more spacious and imposing reading room than the small, low-ceilinged space allotted on the third floor when I arrived. The subsequent renovation of the library restored half of the third floor to its original two-story height, enabling the new, far larger, and better-outfitted reading room—named for Carol K. Pforzheimer ’31, in honor of her crucial support for Radcliffe and particularly for the library—to regain its beautiful original double-height windows. When Dean Faust became President Faust, I thought it utterly necessary to have a portrait of her as founding dean hung in the reading room. That was accomplished with the support of the Institute’s new leadership, and a wonderful event, attended by Carol K. Pforzheimer and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. as well as President Faust and numerous library supporters, marked the installation.

Every time I enter the Pforzheimer Reading Room, I take a small breath of appreciation. I have been using the library’s collections for my own research since 1970, through more than one reconfiguration of the building, which was constructed as the Radcliffe College library in 1911. Today it is more fitting and beautiful for researchers than ever before.

Nancy Cott with fellow historians Lizabeth Cohen, current dean of the Institute, and Drew Gilpin Faust, founding dean and Harvard University president. Photo by Tony RinaldoNancy Cott with fellow historians Lizabeth Cohen, current dean of the Institute, and Drew Gilpin Faust, founding dean and Harvard University president. Photo by Tony Rinaldo

An Array of Public Events

Certain public events will always stand out in my mind—starting with the good-bye fête for Barbara Haber, who retired from her position as curator of books after 30 years. Because she had so much to do with developing the library’s culinary collection, the event had a gustatory as well as a scholarly dimension. I found myself phoning five or six Cambridge chefs to see if they would contribute hors d’oeuvres for a party to honor Barbara. Testifying to their appreciation for her and for the library, they readily agreed, and hundreds crowded in to enjoy the results.

Not long after, we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the library with a two-day scholarly conference titled “Gender, Race, and Rights.” Focusing on recent developments in African American women’s history, that conference featured numerous eminent scholars in the field, including Darlene Clark Hine RI ’04 and Nell Painter PhD ’74, BI ’77, and was bookended by comments from two historians of an older generation, Anne Firor Scott PhD ’58 and Gerda Lerner, both founders of the modern practice of women’s history. It was fitting and poignant that 10 years later, in December 2013, the symposium marking the library’s 70th anniversary honored Gerda Lerner, who had passed away earlier that year.

Other events I’ve been fortunate to arrange include the annual Rothschild Lectures. My first invitee was Angela Davis, who, in the presence of both Maurine and Robert Rothschild, addressed a large crowd in the Kennedy School’s Arco Forum (the Radcliffe Institute then had no lecture hall of its own) and alerted us to the abuses of mass incarceration. Every Rothschild lecturer since—including Samantha Power, Eve Ensler, Barbara Ehrenreich, Catharine MacKinnon, and Anita Hill—has been exciting and notable in a different way, and each one has carried on Maurine Rothschild’s special concern with advancing human rights.

The symposia and seminars and conferences during these years have always required effort but have brought parallel satisfactions. I think, for instance, of the 2005 symposium “Putting Feminism on the Record: ReViewing the 1960s and 1970s,” which celebrated the completion of the library’s grant project, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, to process major holdings on the modern women’s movement, including the records of the National Organization for Women. “The Modern Girl around the World” was a mini-symposium in the spring of 2006 on the “new woman” of the 1920s in the United States, Europe, China, and Africa.

That same spring, I hosted a panel discussion titled “Writing Past Lives: Biography as History,” which featured Alice Kessler-Harris, Linda Gordon, and our current dean, Lizabeth Cohen.

In 2007 we launched the Boston Seminar on the History of Women and Gender, a joint effort between the library and the Massachusetts Historical Society. We have hosted four scholars’ talks, with commentaries, during each academic year ever since.

Summer Institutes

The biography panel heralded a new venture I began in the summer of 2007—a weeklong institute on the same topic, which enrolled scores of applicants to hear two daily lectures by notable scholars (including the historian Susan Ware, now a member of the Schlesinger Library Council) and to participate in workshops in which they presented their own works in progress. The huge success of that experiment encouraged me to hold a second institute the following summer, “Sequels to the 1960s.”

That year the library also hosted the first of my summer programs for middle- and high-school teachers. In these weeklong educational learning experiences, funded by the Gilder-Lehrman Institute, the teachers heard lectures from me and invited scholars and used Schlesinger Library materials to develop their own class lessons, which they shared with one another at the end of the week. The avid participation of the public reference staff at the library gave the teachers a meaningful and often unique experience of conducting research in original materials.

Recent Events

More recent conferences also loom large in my memory. The symposium in September 2011, “The New Majority? The Past, Present and Future of Women in the Workplace,” assembled a federal circuit court justice, leaders of the American Federation of Labor and of the working women’s organization 9 to 5, and the director of the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Supported by a bequest from longtime supporter Clara Goldberg Schiffer ’32, the symposium honored Schiffer for her dedication to keeping working-class women front and center at the Schlesinger Library. The following fall saw one of our largest conferences ever, in which a panoply of scholars, former colleagues, and family members brought Julia Child back to life on the stage, producing one of the most delightful educational events ever to emerge from the Schlesinger.

Having come to the library under the leadership of a historian dean, I’m grateful that I leave it in a similarly favorable situation under Lizabeth Cohen. I feel confident that the Schlesinger will have a secure future of documenting the past.

Nancy F. Cott
Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director
Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History

The Cott Legacy

2001 Drew Faust, then the dean of the Radcliffe Institute, announces that historian Nancy F. Cott will become the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library and a professor of history in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. This dual appointment is a first, promising closer ties among the library, the Radcliffe Institute, the Harvard faculty, and the wider scholarly world, along with the potential for stimulating new collaborations. Describing the possibilities ahead, Faust says, “I cannot imagine a better person to lead the Schlesinger Library.”

2003 Cott organizes the Schlesinger Library Council, making its members partners in guaranteeing the library’s future. She also expands the library’s research grant program, increasing the number of awards and adding grants for oral history projects. Every year these coveted awards bring several dozen researchers—ranging from Harvard undergraduates to nationally recognized senior scholars—to the library’s reading room to mine collections in new and innovative ways.

2004 The library’s renovations are completed, replacing a compartmentalized interior with an elegant, airy, inviting space. Cott attends to the myriad details of color, texture, light fixtures, floor coverings, and chairs. Six chairs from six vendors are set up for test sitting.

2006 Cott supports an internal strategic planning initiative that takes the entire staff to Harvard’s William Dean Howells house, in Kittery, Maine, for a day of brainstorming about the library’s direction over the next five years. She follows up on one of the resulting goals—to diversify the collections—with a careful staff evaluation of existing collections and by convening an ad hoc Academic Advisory Group of scholars whose advice continues to guide the library.

2007 Cott and the library staff work together to meet a goal of the strategic planning initiative: to make more of the library’s holdings available to researchers. The Maximum Access Project is designed to eliminate significant backlogs in both print and manuscript collections. Cott outlines a bold five-year plan that Faust funds, making the Schlesinger Library the envy of the archival world, where funding for processing backlog materials is scarce.

2010 Cott is named to the newly created University Library Board, guaranteeing that the concerns of the Schlesinger Library and other Harvard special collections libraries will be heard as the University contemplates a sweeping evaluation and reorganization of its many libraries. Early on, Cott was a member and a strong proponent of the University’s new Open Collections Programs. The first of these efforts, Women Working: 1800–1930, brought the Schlesinger’s collections to the attention of broad new audiences.

A Sampling of Manuscript Collections Acquired under Cott’s Leadership

These included a zine collection curated by Ann Marie Wilson AM ’05, PhD ’10, one of Cott’s students, and the papers of:

Ti-Grace Atkinson, a radical feminist, writer, and teacher

Marjorie Buell, the cartoonist and shrewd businesswoman who created “Little Lulu” (and the mother of Cott’s Harvard colleague Lawrence Buell)

The Herrick Family, documenting the lives of three remarkable sisters—a doctor, an educator, and a minister

Catharine MacKinnon, a lawyer and advocate for human and women’s rights

Ann Petry, an African American writer

Betty Gram Swing, a suffragist and National Woman’s Party organizer

Lila Hotz Luce Tyng, a socialite who was married to publisher Henry Luce

Ellen Willis, a journalist, feminist, and music critic

—Timeline text by Kathryn Allamong Jacob, Johanna-Maria Fraenkel Curator of Manuscripts


Search Year: