Navigating the Archives: Houghton Looks To Draw Students

Upon entering Houghton Library, students are greeted by the vast archival resources that the library has to offer. The lobby features books in glass cases that several hundred years old, and the marble floors and spiral staircase gives the building a modest opulence.

Worn leather-bound books line the illuminated shelves in the Edison and Newman Room to the left of the foyer. Some reach back into the 1400s and feature names like Dante, Virgil, Ptolmey, and Homer.

According to Houghton librarians, however, these resources are often under-utilized. Emilie Hardman, the research, instruction, and digital initiatives librarian there, says undergraduates do not often take the initiative to use Houghton resources for their own projects.

Hardman said that while many professors bring their classes to look at course-related material, students rarely came back to use collections at Houghton on their own.

“We thought that that was such a missed opportunity,” she said. “We wanted to be explicit that the Houghton is as much the undergraduate’s library as Lamont or Widener and say, ‘Here are the most amazing collections you can imagine, and you can do something with them’.”

To make the library’s resources seem more approachable, Hardman and Heather G. Cole, the assistant curator of modern books and manuscripts, launched the Houghton Undergraduate Summer Fellowship, a program designed to prompt undergraduates to engage with the Houghton’s vast collection and explore their scholarly curiosities.


In contrast to many of the other research opportunities at Harvard, the Houghton fellowship is more flexible and open-ended. Projects are student-driven, and participants plan and pursue their own research.

“We wanted to create an opportunity that, one, was not structured by someone else, that was driven by students’ curiosity and [was] engaged with these materials that tell the stories of the world, and two, we wanted it to be exploratory,” Hardman said.

Hardman and Cole wanted to create a unique summer experience that would combine campus resources, the expansive breadth of the Houghton collection, and the power of student initiative.

“We know that there are a lot of opportunities for students in the summer, competitive opportunities,” Cole said, elaborating that she thinks the Houghton fellowship provides an experience as enriching and prestigious as other programs.

One aspect of the fellowship that is attractive to students is the stipend for research funding.

Last year, the stipend was $3,500, but this year the fellowship will provide even more resources by partnering with the Summer Humanities and Arts Program, which is run by the Harvard Undergraduate Office of Research and Fellowships. Due to administrative changes for this partnership, the 2016 application is due February 18, earlier than the previous year.

“This year’s Houghton fellows will not only be supported by the stipend but also have housing on campus and access to the research community that SHARP builds,” Hardman said.

Additionally, Cole said the fellowship connects students to the broader research community as scholars come from around the world to use Houghton’s collections.

Houghton was able to fund three fellows this past summer, and Hardman said she hopes the program can accept more in the future.

As of now, however, the fellowship is not formally funded by a specific office or organization. As Hardman put it, the funding came from the “library budget version of couch change grabbing. We shook out the cushions and put it together.”

Along with two letters of recommendation, the application consists of a project proposal and an explanation of how the collections will be used since engagement with the materials is at the core of the program, Hardman said.

An ideal applicant would be one willing to enthusiastically dive into a realm of what Hardman refers to as “creative scholarship.”


The term “creative scholarship” seems to perfectly encapsulate the final products. The inaugural group of fellows created a diverse array of original work with the archival material they used: A series of podcasts, an opera based on the life of Alice James, and a report exploring the divergence of birth control movements in the United States and United Kingdom.

Virginia R. Marshall ’15 created a podcast series about the life of several writers and their works. Her project, entitled “Reel Writing: Poems and prose off and on the tape reel,” also used recordings from the Woodberry Poetry Room.

“I had an incredible amount of freedom to be seized by a topic and delve as deeply as I saw fit into the story,” said Marshall, a former Crimson Arts editor.

Marshal discussed the excitement of handling historical objects that belonged to the famous writers she was researching, such as butterflies Nabokov painted on the backs of envelopes.

“I was also surprised to learn the kind of spell-binding pull an object can have over the researcher,” she said. “It's hard to describe the quiet thrill of holding a letter that one of your literary idols wrote, and seeing the places where they crossed a word out or doodled in the margins.”

Similarly, Jake H. Wilder-Smith ’16, who constructed an opera based on correspondence between Alice James—the sister of writer Henry James—and her family, was also inspired by the voices he was studying.

In a presentation about his project, Wilder-Smith said that he was forced “to consider what it means to adapt a text, to formulate a character, to build a voice from the words someone leaves behind, to compose an opera that merges my words and language with theirs, and places my melodies in their voices.”


The Undergraduate Fellowship is part of a larger, growing effort to encourage students to become more familiar with the Houghton’s resources and to increase the library’s visibility on campus.

“We have a lot of knowledgeable staff who are really happy to talk to students about projects”, Cole said. “We just want to make sure that students know that we are here to help with research and curiosity.”

Additionally, Cole and Hardman said they plan to run a user survey for the first time in almost three decades in order to better understand how to enhance their ability to serve the needs of students.

“We are thinking strategically and programmatically about things we might do that would get people out of the curated class environment and work with their own interests,” Hardman said.

These efforts aim to keep undergraduates from feeling overwhelmed by Harvard’s massive library collection.

“People start to see the scope of what’s in front of them and back away in horror,” Hardman said.

The fellowship, along with a little help navigating the collections, might make the shelves lined with Homer and Virgil less intimidating.


Recommended Articles