A Rare Palace: Houghton Library at 75

Houghton Library at 75: A Celebration of its Collections (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), xii + 116 pages.

Envisioned as an “enchanted palace” by Harvard librarian Archibald Cary Coolidge in 1924, Houghton Library opened in 1942 with steel, bricks, and mortar, as well as a donation of stock in the Corning Glass Works from namesake Arthur A. Houghton, Jr, Harvard Class of 1929. It was then a new concept in the United States – a standalone special collections library on a university campus. It even had modern features, like climate controls and fluorescent lights. Almost never referred to as “The Houghton,” it took its place in the pantheon of American libraries rather quietly, often through absorbing collections from other areas of Harvard and its alumni.[1]

Seventy-five years later, and Houghton has amassed quite a collection of rare books, manuscripts, maps, audio recordings and digital files, showcased here with 75 representative samples. Sumptuously photographed and annotated according to physical size and provenance, these examples stand in for an updated narrative history of Houghton – which awaits to be written.[2] The role of Keyes Metcalf, Director of University Libraries at Harvard from 1937 to 1955, in the planning of Houghton is oddly elided in a foreword by Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, a preface by Houghton librarian Thomas Hyry, and a prologue from curators Heather Cole and John Overholt.[3] To the latter, however, goes the credit for selecting such a visually enchanting array of first editions (e.g. Wigglesworth’s Day of Doom), last remaining print survivals (e.g. Perrault’s Mother Goose’s Tales), rare hand-sewn volumes (e.g. the Brontë sisters’ mini-books), and the libraries of famous people (e.g. Theodore Roosevelt’s pigskin library taken to Africa). It’s a rare thing, surprisingly, to read about a special collection library or archival repository as a single entity in history.

— Eric C. Stoykovich, co-editor Archival History News

[1] Houghton Library at 75: A Celebration of its Collections (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), v, ix.

[2] The most recent narrative may be: Hugh Amory, Elizabeth A. Falsey, and Nancy Finley, A Houghton Library Chronicle, 1942-1992 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard College Library, 1992).

[3] Keyes Metcalf figures prominently in the entry in Wikipedia: Houghton Library, accessed January 23, 2018.

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