Houghton Library: A Rare Gem Full of Rare Gems

houghton

By Suzanna Bobadilla

Exploring the rarely visited library which houses many of the world’s most valuable and rare books

Houghton Library is situated between Widener and Lamont. Most students at Harvard pass by this library everyday with thoughts of finishing up that last p-set in Lamont Café, yet never once stop to think what the Houghton building is or what it holds. Being huge library nerds (oh come on, don’t be surprised – this is Harvard, after all), we decided to take a quick trip to Houghton Library and push beyond thoughts of the Lamonster.

Opened in 1942, Houghton Library was built to hold Harvard’s rare books and manuscripts. It was one of the first libraries to have specialized climate control features to ensure the preservation of its contents. Today Houghton Library is home to many of Harvard’s most interesting and all encompassing collections, including the Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard Theater Collection, Early Books & Manuscripts Collection, and the Modern Books & Manuscripts Collections, to name a few. Many of Houghton’s collections are now available on Online Archival Search Information System (OASIS) such as the Digital Medieval Manuscript and Digital Papyri collections. But while seeing Houghton’s collections online allows you to just stay in your dorm room and study thousands of years old artifacts, there is still something to be said about seeing the real deal in person.

Walking into Houghton Library for the first time is definitely one of those “Harvard” moments. With its glass paneled bookcases circling the room and the beautiful staircase leading to the other floors, Houghton seems more like a gorgeous old mansion rather than a library. Visitors will need to check in at the first desk and then head over to the locker room to store their personal belongings. Perhaps one of the trickiest parts of any Houghton visit is remembering to bring a quarter to access the lockers. It sounds like a silly problem, but it could be potentially problematic. Harvard IDs can tap, swipe, and Crimson Cash students into basically every college necessity but they are useless when confronted by the lockers’ coin slot.

Once everything aside from a pencil, laptop, and small notebook is locked away, visitors are allowed to enter the reading room. You will have to press a button that will unlock the door and then head over to the librarians’ desk where you will need to be registered. Access to materials is granted only after showing two forms of picture ID and signing an agreement. The process is much more intimidating that the card-slide at Lamont, but understandable given the value of the materials.

Along with the papers of Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and T.S. Eliot, Houghton Library is home to some of Charlotte Brontë’s first creative works. The library holds nine miniature novellas that Brontë and her brother (name of brother) created when they were still children. After browsing Houghton’s collections on OASIS, we decided to examine Brontë’s mini books. We were first astounded by their size. About the length of a thumb and the width of a two keyboard keys, we were amazed that the Brontë’s were able to write so clearly and with much detail in such a small space. The books were bound together with string; some were written on the backside of newsprint. More than anything else, the books show that Brontë was driven to write no matter what she had available. Handling the manuscripts was very intimidating. Houghton’s security measures are impressive, but in the end there is nothing separating you from an almost 200-year-old thin and weathered piece of newsprint. Following the advice that we got from our kindergarten teachers, we decided to look and not touch, and settled with craning our necks to see more of the text.

After straining both our eyes and our backs trying to closely examine Brontë’s work we decided to call it a day and say goodbye to Houghton. Walking out of the library into the amazing weather, it already seemed unreal that only minutes before we had been touching Brontë’s handwriting.

Houghton Library’s reading room is open from 9:00-5:00 Monday through Saturday. Other collections may be closed on weekends. Good luck and remember that quarter!

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