Strolling Through Schlesinger’s Stacks
She only planned to stay for a few years.
But as she sits more than thirty years later in a book-crammed office on the third floor of what has become one of the nation’s leading resources for research on the history of women, Haber is clearly not going anywhere.
She talks excitedly about her plans to cultivate the library’s growing collection of cookbooks and women’s history.
Much has changed since those first days.
“The world cracked open, and women’s history suddenly became a focal point,” she says.
Under Haber’s watch, the library’s holdings have grown from 8,000 books to more than 80,000.
As the librarian in charge of collection development, Haber decides which books the library will buy and which magazines will line the shelves of its periodical room.
“My job is to gaze into a crystal ball and try to imagine what historians who will be here in the future will hope to find here,” she says.
A stroll through the library’s stacks just outside her open door reveal books ranging from feminism to motherhood to widowhood. Here, like in most libraries, the Dewey Decimal system reigns supreme. Jewish women and Muslim women share a shelf in the section marked 296 to 297. Aviatrixes reside in 629.1, with an entire section devoted to books about Amelia Earhart. Just across the aisle, lesbians occupy the 306.76 section.
For the roughly 7,000 researchers who come to the library each year, the visit begins with a registration card, a guest book and a locker assignment.
Roughly 40 percent of the researchers are Harvard students, and many have no Harvard affiliation, since the library is open to the public.
Staff members are quick to point out that in many ways, the Schlesinger—which also contains letters, diaries and photographs documenting women’s history in addition to the Radcliffe College Archives—is not like the other Harvard libraries.
No bags. No pens. No weekend hours or evening work (except on Wednesdays, when the library stays open until 8 p.m.).
And although women’s history plays a central role in the library’s mission, its unique collections range from works on social justice to travel diaries. In this four-story red brick building in Radcliffe Yard, there is, they say, something for everyone.
Cooking Up a Collection
One of the library’s most well-known resources is Haber’s brainchild—an extensive collection of cookbooks and books on culinary history.
Though the cookbook collection numbered roughly 1,500 by the 1960s, it has grown in recent years to become one of the largest in the world, with Haber’s push for culinary history to be recognized as a valid research pursuit.
Just down the hall from her office, an enlarged, autographed photo portrait of Julia Child stands atop an easel—one of many pieces of memorabilia in the room dedicated to the colorful TV personality who charmed audiences with her culinary panache.
A giant spoon hangs nearby, accompanied by a plaque from the 1998 Food Arts 10th Anniversary Dinner declaring Child the “Honoree of the Decade.”
Child has been a major supporter of the library, donating her papers and also providing financial support.
“Julia has been a very good friend to us,” Haber says.
Child’s plaque is one of many that hangs on the Schlesinger’s walls. Many of the shelves in the stacks are endowed. Even the library’s elevator was donated by the Radcliffe College Class of 1967.
The Schlesinger Library’s walls have almost as much to say as its books or manuscripts.
In the periodical room, a poster from the First National Women’s Conference in 1977 reads “American Women on the Move.” The signing of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, is captured in a photograph on the walls of the manuscript reading room.
Though male portraits may rule on the majority of Harvard’s walls, women dominate on the walls of the Schlesinger’s spiral staircase. Amelia Earhart, Betty Friedan and Lydia Pinkham are among the women featured.
All these women’s papers are part of the library’s manuscript collections.
From Guns to Glamour
In the Schlesinger’s periodical room, women and gender studies play a central role.
Researchers can examine 1970s beauty trends in Mademoiselle or Vanity Fair, or peruse newsletters published by women’s organizations during the second wave of the women’s movement—from Leaping Lesbians to The Scarlet Letter.
Current magazine issues such as Women and Guns and Oprah are also available.
Tucked between bound volumes of Glamour and Feminist Studies, Angela Lin ’02 types furiously on her laptop.
A smattering of Chinese food cookbooks sit beside her as she works on a final project about the evolution of Chinese food in the United States for Chinese Literature 132: “Chinatowns.”
Lin says she first heard about the library’s cookbook collection from Assistant Professor Eileen Chow, who teaches the course.
“I had no idea before I came here,” she says. “I can’t believe that we have these things.”
The experience, Lin says, has made her appreciate Radcliffe more.
“In general, I have never really cared about Radcliffe,” she says. “But now I think it’s nice to have this space. There’s a more personal feeling.”
Staff members say working intimately with the collections and researchers is one of the perks of the Schlesinger.
“We’re not doing such rapid-fire research that we don’t get a chance to engage with researchers and their research,” explains librarian Sarah Hutcheon.
Questions for librarians range from detailed dissertation studies of the women’s rights movement to the history of the cream puff.
Even that, librarians say, is no light matter.
With the addition of an e-mail form to the Schlesinger website, reference requests have skyrocketed. And the questions are often more in-depth than in years past, according to librarian Ellen Shea.
A Thousand Words
In the second floor Manuscript Room, Marie-Helene Gold works with the library’s collection of over 75,000 photographs.
Though women’s history is the collection’s focal point, Gold emphasizes the evolution of the history of photography as well—from daguerreotypes to tin types to albumin prints.
As the photographic coordinator, Gold often works with researchers who need photographs for publications or filmmakers looking for the perfect image.
“The requests that I find the most interesting are people who don’t know exactly what they want,” she says.
Here, too, technology has transformed daily life. Catalogers are in the process of digitizing 36,000 of the library’s images. Currently, 17,000 images are available online through Harvard’s Visual Information Access system.
In the nearby reading room, researchers comb through file boxes and folders containing parts of the library’s special manuscript collections.
As Acting Director Jane Knowles explains, the process of securing a collection for the library often involves a considerable amount of wheeling, dealing and cultivation.
“It is a question of developing a relationship,” Knowles says. “Sometime it’s a question of a two or three year discussion.”
And sometimes, the find is serendipitous.
Well-known early 20th century anarchist and social activist Emma Goldman’s papers, for example, were purchased after a researcher mentioned that a collection of Goldman’s work resided in the freezer of a New York delicatessen.
After the collection arrives at the Schlesinger, archivists, librarians and staffers in the library’s manuscript department must “process” the collection by reading its contents and organizing the material.
Manuscript Processor Deborah Richards compares her job to reading someone else’s mail.
For Acting Archivist Kathy Kraft, the job has personal significance. She says it gives her a look behind the scenes of the women’s movement, which she herself participated in.
“I wouldn’t like to work on just any records in general,” Kraft says.
Behind the Scenes
Signs that read “Caution,” “No Smoking” and “Authorized Personnel Only” bar the average visitor from entering the library’s basement rooms, which house many of the library’s prize possessions.
Shea, one of the Schlesinger’s librarians, unlocks the door of one temperature-controlled room, known simply as “Vault 1,” and leads the way to a corner filing cabinet.
A large collection of posters, pennants and pins fill the drawers, many of them dating back to the turn of the century.
Shea opens a nondescript box on top of another filing cabinet.
“It’s kind of morbid,” she says, as she displays a mold taken of author Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s face after her death in 1935.
Heading into the shelves, Shea pulls out a small box, labelled A-129. Inside is a small white book, embossed with gold letters that read “Baby’s Kingdom.” Within its pages, the meticulous script of a mother documents her daughter’s early days.
Her first word? Papa. Her first steps? August 27. Her name? Amelia Earhart.
—Staff writer Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.