“Who Cares?” Houghton Library 75th Anniversary Symposium. October 5-6, 2017

The Houghton Library Symposium, which marked the 75th anniversary of its founding, asked provocatively, “Who cares?” The resulting answers, provided by speakers and attendees, reflected a wide variety of opinions and experiences. The Houghton staff who planned the event were led by a Symposium Committee, which included Emilie Hardman, Dennis Marnon, Leslie Morris, and Ryan Wheeler.

Committee Chair Emilie Hardman, who serves as Research, Instruction and Digital Initiatives Librarian at Houghton Library, aimed to build on the Houghton’s 75th Anniversary theme “What’s Past is Prologue,” but added healthy doses of skepticism about the self-congratulatory content of such commemorative programs.

Hardman described the main goal of the planning committee as assembling content focused on concepts and ideas, not logistics, to empower a diverse array of panelists, keynote speakers and attendees to embrace a variety of topics. The programs ought to “break up our insularity,” Hardman reasoned. “Our care is not enough and may not always be right.”  Building on the idea that special collections ought to function more as tool boxes and less as jewel boxes, Hardman and the Houghton symposium planners assembled a program to prompt attendees to consider new ways to generate and enact care for special collections in libraries, archives, and museums.

The events began on October 5th with Tom Hyry, Florence Fearrington Librarian of Houghton Library, providing a brief history of the Houghton library and sharing the vision of Keyes Metcalf (Director of Harvard University Libraries, 1937-1955), who sought not only to house the collection safely, but to build stellar collections. In Hyry’s opinion, there has never been a better time to be in our profession; we are at once in a position to promote online resources to expand new ways of conducting research and using tangible items to bring people closer together in ways that challenge our understanding. It is a moment in time in which we must take care to expand and protect our user base and collections, even though librarians and archivists face great challenges to the humanities.

Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, offered opening remarks about his experience in libraries and archives and how they shaped his career, leading ultimately to the development of what is now the Hutchins Center for African & African-American Research at Harvard University.  His stewardship began at the start of his career and deepened as his research led him to work with and build archival collections at Yale, Cornell, Duke and Harvard Universities.  Gates, using his experience at Harvard as an example, described successful faculty-librarian relationships and their importance in growing academic programs and library collections. Our care for these relationships translates into productivity for both partners and strengthens the academic disciplines they support.

The keynote speaker of Friday’s events, Jamaica Kincaid (novelist, essayist, and Professor of African and African American Studies in Residence, Harvard University), expressed disbelief that her papers are collected and preserved at Harvard, and that she would wind up so closely involved with libraries given her early experience with reading and libraries as detailed in her writing. Kinkaid’s talk, which drew on her well-known opinions of the importance of libraries and archives, was a moving tribute to such repositories crafted with selections from her writing and commentary underscoring their meaning.

The first day of the symposium concluded with a reception and exhibit event in the Houghton Library.  Staff curated temporary exhibits in each of the reading rooms and provided interpretation of Altered States the current static exhibit.

On October 6th, Sarah Thomas, Vice President for the Harvard Library and University Librarian Roy E. Larsen Librarian for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, kicked off the events with welcoming remarks for Drew Faust, President of Harvard University.  As was the case with the preceding speakers, Thomas and Faust have built impactful careers caring for and building library collections. For Thomas, caring is enacted through change – in teaching, in access and outreach, in physical and digital spaces and through growth in diversity as well as size. For Faust, as historian and administrator, care is both a personal and professional trait that she continuously develops by being mindful of how libraries and archives influenced her life and by making deliberate decisions to provide care for their future.

Keynote speaker Johanna Drucker, who is Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, focused on the “who” of “who cares?” Drucker illustrated her points with a lively, anecdotal overview of the history of Harvard’s several different libraries and their many librarians.  In many ways, her historical treatment could also be considered a microcosmic history of the library profession as a whole. Her review of the past was presented as a backdrop to her vision of the future. We must be diligent in our support for those starting out in library and archives careers to perpetuate the cycle of care for our collections.

The first panel session on Saturday morning, How to Care, was moderated by John Overholt, Curator of the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Samuel Johnson and Early Modern Books and Manuscripts, Houghton Library, who set the tone for the speakers by stating that he cared because it was in his job description.  In essence, we who pursue careers in libraries and archives are people who want to care for collections. Liz Ševčenko (Director, Humanities Action Lab) spoke of her work with the Guantanamo Public Memory Project and the importance of exploring history to create stakeholders, people who care through their lived experiences, not just as academic interests. Jordan Alexander Stein (Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Fordham University) shared his research into the life of Avis DeVoto and gender problems in writing biography. Maria Estorino (Associate University Librarian for Special Collections, University of North Carolina) shared her experience as a librarian who has worked hard to understand power relationships in our field as a form of self-care that helps us to be better in our professional roles.

The second panel session of the day, Taking Care, was moderated by Leslie Morris(Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts, Houghton Library.) Morris is regarded by Henry Louis “Skip” Gates as a role model for pursuing collections outside the traditional library structure. Panelists spoke to the deliberate action of taking or making collections in a variety of ways with Chris Wilde (Co-Founder, The Queer Zine Archive Project), Marcyliena Morgan (Professor, Harvard University and the Director of the Hiphop Archive & Research Institute), Michelle Habell-Pallán (Associate Professor of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies, University of Washington), and Sonnet Retman (Associate Professor of American Ethnic Studies, University of Washington), Jarrett Drake (PhD student in cultural anthropology, Harvard University) and Arthur Fournier (bookdealer, Fournier Fine & Rare).  Each addressed the development of the collections they create, curate or sell and the challenge of attempting to incorporate a more diverse record into institutional collections.

The last panel session, I Care, moderated by Dale Stinchcomb, (Assistant Curator, Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library), engaged panelists who use special collections in their work, whether they be teachers or students, either in the digital humanities or the book arts. Trevor Muñoz (Assistant Dean for Digital Humanities Research, University of Maryland Libraries/ Associate Director, MITH) regarded his work as “special collections outside the walls.”  Angela Lorenz (Visual Artist) explained how books and art intersect in her work. Jay Satterfield (Special Collections Librarian, Dartmouth College) exercised care for collections by creating situations where the materials can do their job – to excavate the past and move humanity into the future.  Tez Clark, (Harvard Class of 2018 and Houghton Library/SHARP Undergraduate Fellow, 2016) explored the question: “What role should libraries play in today’s political landscape?”

As hoped, the symposium sparked lively debate and supported thoughtful dialogue among attendees and speakers.  It was announced that the events were being recorded and will be made available in the future.  Additionally, unspoken flavor of the event can be taken from social media posts and online exhibits. The schedule of events, list of speakers and links to more information about the year-long celebration can be found on the symposium web site.


Nora Blackman is an archivist on the Scholarly Resources and Special Collections team at the Kelvin Smith Library, Case Western Reserve University.

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