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Old Books in and Under the Yard

Houghton Library Is the University's Enchanted Storeroom

By Nicholas Gagarin

The young frail looking freshman stood on the steps of Houghton Library and clutched his cop of "don Quixote" in his hand. He thought for a minute of the blaring rock and roll that his roommates were playing back at his room stared at the heavy wooden doors of the library, then pushed them open and walked inside. The attendant looked up from his desk. "Is there someplace here where I can read?" the boy asked, fingering the book in his hand.

"I'm sorry," the attendant said, "the Houghton Library is for the use of scholars."

"Oh," The boy turned and walked out. He never returned.

THE HOUGHTON library is the ugly building in Harvard Yard between Widener and Lamont. Its brick walls are drab and square, the stone steps leading to its entrance are ponderous, and its doors are always closed.

The library was built in 1942. "This was the time," Philip Hofer, curator of the d department of Printing and Graphic Arts, recalled last week, "When period styles were going out of fashion and modern art and architecture were coming in. The building was heavily criticized by all the modernists and heavily supported by all the traditionalists -- coolidge, for ex-example, of Coolidge, Shepley, Bull-finch, Abbott, and God." Hofer's eyes twinkled. "Please do not leave out God, because he was one of their junior partners."

The doors to the Houghton remain closed in order to maintain constant temperature and humidity for the collection. Most students have never been inside--and it's too bad because the Houghton Library is a magical, enchanted place, the home of the University's rare books and manuscripts.

Among other things, the Houghton Library has the best Keats Collection in the world. It has letters and manuscripts of Martin Luther--in the last two years alone, it has acquired 22 of Luther's first editions. It has letters of Sheridan and Garrick. One of two recorded copies of the abridged edition of John Cleland's Memoirs of Fanny hill which omits the sexual detail. A vast Goldsmith collection, including the first Swedish translations of the Vicar of Wakefield and The Citizen of the World. First editions of Balzac, Stendahl, and Baudelaire. A theatre collection which includes letters of Booth, working scripts of Jean Renoir, letters of John Gielgud, and manuscripts of Shaw. first editions of Appolinaire, Claudel, Camus. Four of Bonhoeffer's manuscripts, written during his imprisonment. Letters of Gorkii and Pasternak, of Joyce, O'Casey, Eliot, and Yeats. Working papers of John Updike. A copy of Churchill's Step by Step that John Kennedy owned while an undergraduate.

One can only hint at the enormity of the Houghton's collections. In all, the library contains hundreds of thousands of books and several million manuscripts. "They may or may not have been expensive to acquire," William Bond, curator of the Houghton Library, has written, "but they would be difficult or impossible to replace, their absence from a scholarly library would be unthinkable, and their artistic or historical values are susceptible to attrition through ordinary handling. They constitute the basic raw material and the evidence that must be handed on, intact if possible, from one generation of scholars to all those who follow."

The Harvard University Library, with its eight million volumes and branches as far away as Florence, is the eldest and second largest library in the United States and the fourth largest library in the world. It is not surprising that in the years since the middle of the 17th century -- when John Eliot called it "a large Library with some Bookes to it" -- the library has acquired many volumes which have since become scarce. From among the volumes sitting on the stacks of Widener which there is no room for in Houghton, one could put together a rare books library that most universities in the country would be proud of. Houghton itself has quadrupled its contents since the library opened in 1942.

Hofer, who founded the department of Printing and Graphic Arts, has been with the Houghton Library since its beginning. "Before the Houghton was built," he recalls, "the rare books and manuscripts were being kept in Widner Library, in stacks that were on the ground, or even below ground, where the heat was enormous. There wasn't any way to turn it off adequately. Every morning when Bill [William A. Jackson, curator of the Houghton from 1942 until his death in 1964] and I arrived at the so-called rare book room of Widner Library, the temperature would be a minimum of 85, causing a dreadful degree of dryness for the books.

"Each year the library visiting committee met with us, and each year we told our sad tale. One year, a particular Harvard graduate had written a history of the Supreme Court. He himself was a lawyer. He was particularly well fitted to be long, verbose, tiresome, and pompous. When we told him, as the new chairman of our committee, that we wanted a rare books library, he became indignant and said he thought it was a very poor use of money. In fact, he thought that rare books were utterly useless, and as far as he was concerned, he would give us no assistance and would do everything he could to restrain us from acquiring such a building.

Hofer, at 70, remains a young, spry, active man. He laughed as he remembered the episode, swung his legs over the arm of his chair, and went on, delighted. "That angered Arthur A. Houghton, class of 1928, who met with us afterward in the bar of the Ritz in Boston, where we took him to assuage our anguish and his thirst. He was a very good ally, and I said that I would go out on a Middle Western and Eastern tour of various friends of the Harvard Library to raise the money, if he would go with me.

"In June of that year, I met Arthur with my bags packed and my Buick roadster, a car of those days, all ready to go. It was a hot day. Arthur looked at the car -- it wasn't a Rolls Royce--and he looked at me and he thought of the long trip. He also had his bags with him, rather large for a Buick Roadster, and he said, "Oh God, how are we going to make it?"

"And then he said, "Look, I've got another idea. Come on back in the library.' We went back into Widener and sat down in the heat and he said, 'I had an old aunt who died, and she left me some money. And you know, I really don't need it.'" Houghton gave Harvard a million dollars, and the library opened in his name in February, 1942.

At that time, the library had about 125,000 volumes. It has since grown to almost half a million, overflowing tht space within Houghton itself and spilling into one of the lower levels of Lamont. The Harvard Library Committee is now in the process of trying to raise $5 million for the underground library expansion in the area between Widener, Houghton, Lamont, and President Pusey's house. Two of the projected four floors will go to Houghton and, with luck, fill its space needs on into the 1980's.

MOST of the problems the Library faces are straightforward: space, of course, is one; staff for the care and cataloguing of the collections is another; and the acquisition of new books is a third. Every institution, however, has similar problems. The Houghton--with an annual budget of about $750,000--is in a good position today because of its tremendous accumulation under the leadership of Jackson and Hofer over the past 25 years.

The library goes on collection as fast as ever--building on its strengths and working on areas of weakness. In the late 1950's for example, the library began collecting Oriental manuscripts, of which it had only a few, "There were opportunities, the prices weren't high, and there wasn't much competition," Hofer says. "It goes like that. We use our money well."

Its high quality does not, of course, allow the Houghton to be complacent; but it does allow it breathing space in which to ponder a more serious question that confronts it: that of its role within the University and, implicitly, the community. Many people have recently proposed that Harvard make greater efforts to involve the people of Cambridge in its intellectual life and, specifically, that it make the resources of its libraries more accessible to the public.

"We find this logical for big city institutions," Hofer says, "but less logical for a university institution, and still less logical for a rare books library such as ours, where we primarily want to serve scholars. We are essentially here for scholarship work, and we allow the public in to the degree that it is scholarly. The real value of this library is that these are source materials for, the scholar who wants to get right down to the fundamentals: where did it all come from?"

Houghton, in other words, serves an international community. As many as half of the people who annually use the library have no connection with Harvard. To them, for a small charge, the Houghton readily makes its resources available.

"One of the functions of a university," Harvard President James B. Conant observed at the opening of the Houghton, "is to act as a guardian of the cultural riches of the past. Our libraries and museums serve only in part our own students and our staff. To a large measure they are of benefit to the much greater world of scholars.... We are the servants of a community that extends far beyond these academic walls -- our responsibilities transcend both the immediate aims of this institution of learning and the days in which we live."

Thomas Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, has been making a big splash recently with his call for greater involvement of the public in the affairs of th earth world. People at Harvard often talk of breaking down the barriers which have traditionally kept the university aloof from the life of the people of Cambridge. One must be careful, however, that in the process one does not dilute what Curator Bond has called "the raw material" of scholarship. One must be careful in building up a new community not to destroy another, equally important one.

The Houghton Library is a world of its own, and the people within it, like Hofer, have found a life style of their own. It is a life style which rejects the values of middle class conservatism and prudishness as forcefully as do today's revolutionaries. It is a life style which looks with some awe and some reverence at the history of men and in its own way, affirms the existence of beauty and love.

"I was in businesses during the years after my graduation, until 1930," Hofer recalls. "I graduated in 1921 and I worked for ten years and I hated it. I wanted always to get out as soon as I could. . . I was in a horrible thing called the coal business, and I also got into the security business. I never made anything out of the coal business, but I speculated and made a little out of the securities, and I got out. I wanted a way of life, a way of life rather than just to make money.

"This was particularly true of Bill Jackson. He loved books. I think it was compulsive. We loved books and wanted to be with books."

The world of books and scholarship, however, runs the risk of becoming a dead one if it does not in some way relate to the incredible sweep of change that is going on around it. Hofer is deeply sensitive to this problem, probably the overriding problem that the Houghton now faces.

"What we need to do is to intrigue young people, and I don't think we've done enough of that," Hofer says. The Houghton's single failure, and the task that now confronts it, may be as simple as that.

Hofer officially retired in July, but he maintains an office in the basement of the Houghton. In it is a cot, covered with a rug -- "late 17th or early 18th century Imperial rug" -- where he can rest. He has often slept nights there, where it is cool, when the weather outside has been hot. His office is cluttered with pieces of art, papers, photographs, small figures, and chest which he says are "all full of things."

From his desk, Hofer looked up, pointed across his office, and said, "That is my favorite thing here. it is a cast from the British Museum hear of Hypnos, which is Graeco-Roman, and underneath it is written in Greek what was over the Alexandrian Lirarv: 'A healing place for the soul.' That just gives me peace when I feel. . . well, wouldn't that give you peace?"

Somedav, if men find peace, they will turn back to their libraries and museums, to the books and manuscripts and letters that make up their cultural past. The challenge facing the Houghton Library--where the spirit of Emerson, Longfellow, Henry James, and thousands of others lives on--is to guide them.

"He loved books. I think it was compulsive. We loved books and wanted to be with books."

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