Hidden in Plain Sight

Like undergraduates at other colleges, many Harvard students will be assigned to read material like Hobbes’s “Leviathan,” the poems of Emily Dickinson, or the theories of Galileo (in principle, if not letter) sometime during the course of their education. Like them, we can go buy our required texts in the university bookstore, online, or secondhand with highlighter marks flashing across the coffee-stained pages.

Unlike them, however, we also have another option: We can actually go and read the originals.

Most of Harvard College has a general awareness, and even pride, that the University’s library system has one of the largest collections of books, DVDs, and other materials in the world—meaning that, even if the reserved reading for your class always seems to checked out, there will always be at least one season of “The O.C.” available. Most of us also know, if only from the long-ago admissions tour, that Harvard owns a Gutenberg Bible and a First Folio of the works of Shakespeare. Some of us even stumbled across the former on display in the middle of Widener before figuring out that we weren’t in the stacks.

But many students remain unaware that Harvard also has, among many other things, multiple first editions of Andreas Vesalius’s “De humani corporis fabrica”: a book made out of tin;; Ella Fitzgerald’s cookbooks; letters to T.S. Eliot from James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and John Maynard Keynes; Samuel Johnson’s tea set; and the original drawings for “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” And many people are equally surprised to find that you don’t need special permission in order to see many of these things. You can walk in after lunch, read Melville’s copy of Emerson (with his notes in the margins), and still make it to class at two.

Very few undergrads take advantage of these resources during their time at Harvard, which is, to put it mildly, too bad. (To be fair, a lot of grad students—and even professors—don’t, either.) Despite the fact that Houghton Library, which houses Harvard’s rare books and materials, is just thirty seconds to the right of Lamont—fifteen if you feel like sprinting with a backpack—a recent, completely unscientific survey of Harvard students found that less than a quarter of them could point to it on a map. (Nine-tenths of them, however, resented me accosting them with a campus map outside of Annenberg.) Like Poe’s purloined letter, Houghton Library lies hidden in plain sight.

You have to leave some identifying information the first time you go in, and you can’t take a bag into the reading room, but after that, using Houghton Library is a pretty easy experience. Unlike Widener or Lamont, the staff will actually find a book on request and bring it to the counter for you. (Imagine that—more time to play cell-phone games.) And, even though the library is often full of researchers carefully transcribing or annotating centuries-old books on laptops, it’s perfectly acceptable to use a book simply to do one’s reading. One of my favorite experiences from freshman year was reading a first edition of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” in its original pamphlet form, before going off to discuss it in a Gov 1061 section with the smell of 18th-century rag paper still on my fingers. Since then, I’ve been able to do the same with Hume, Montesquieu, and Jane Austen. Amazon may be good for comparison shopping, but some things are priceless—and, since it’s a library, it’s all free, anyway.

Many of Harvard’s other libraries unjustly suffer from lack of attention, too. To name just a few, Schlesinger Library not only holds most of Julia Child’s cookbooks; it documents the entire history of women in America and at Harvard. Langdell Library is not just a cozy retreat from the Yard when Lamont is too crowded; it has all the papers of Judge Learned Hand, too. Baker Business Library does not just have nice bathrooms; it also holds the erstwhile Lehman Brothers papers so that even if the economics department doesn’t offer accounting courses, you can at least see how not to do it. The house libraries are regularly used for workspace, but they have books, too—often the one you need, and a lot closer than Widener. There are more than 70 libraries at Harvard, and most of us will only ever set foot in a few. Those 70 libraries together hold over 16 million books, and half a million new books come in every year. Imagine how many books you’ll read during your time here—50? 200? A couple dozen? Even if you read a book a day, you wouldn’t come close to scratching the surface.

But what makes our library special isn’t sheer size—there are larger and scarier libraries in the world. What’s unique about Harvard is the quality of its brightest gems. For a very, very brief time of our lives, we live and sleep within fifteen minutes of Martin Luther’s correspondence, the papers of the Alcott family, and the entire library of the logician W. V. Quine, in addition to every work mentioned above. There’s something for everyone, no matter what your interests may be. Given that, doesn’t it seem like a waste to use the libraries only for the carrels?

Spencer B.L. Lenfield ’12, a history and literature concentrator in Eliot House, is a former Berta Greenwald Ledecky fellow at Harvard Magazine.