Old Books in and Under the Yard

Houghton Library Is the University's Enchanted Storeroom

The young, frail looking freshman stood on the steps of Houghton Library and clutched his copy 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 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 example, of Coolidge, Shepley, Bullfinch. 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 collections. 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 Funny 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 Gorki 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 oldest 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 Widener 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 or the Houghton from 1942 until his death in 1964] and I arrived at the so-called rare book room of Widener 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 the 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.

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