Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Cambridge Annual Archives Crawl: Day 2

Day One of Open Archives was focused on Cambridge city collections; Day Two will be Harvard collections, Day Three cultural collections, and Day Four (to which I’m not going this year) MIT collections. There will be less walking on Day Two, since we’re staying within Harvard.

Harvard University Archives

The archival collection of all things Harvard is located in the Pusey Library. Just walking down the hall to the Archive’s rooms was a treat: we passed the rooms of the Harvard Map Collection (, the rooms for the holdings of the Harvard Theatre Collection (, a hallway display about Theodore Roosevelt, and another display about the war of 1812.

The staff of the archives had quite a number of items for us to examine (and lemonade and cookies in an adjoining room, thank you staff!). It wasn’t too difficult for them to find items in keeping with this year’s theme of “Famous and Infamous,” but they did tend to favor “famous.” Two documents signed by John Hancock illustrated the evolution of his well-known signature; it was not quite so fancy back in 1754, but its boldness was already apparent. FDR’s update for the class anniversary report noted his current occupation as “President U.S.” and in the space to describe how much he had traveled he wrote “about 1,000,000 miles.” Other items were about the university and events (e.g. ‘60s protests) rather than about individuals.

I was most fascinated by the class book of 1837, which was open to Henry David Thoreau’s page. Each member of the class wrote long-hand, himself, about himself (no herselfs back then), and the class secretary later kept each person’s entry up-to-date with news clippings, notices of occupation and death, sometimes photos, etc. These class books, forerunners of the red class books and anniversary reports, are in handwritten format pretty much only for the 19th century. I need to go back to one of my New England research projects—I think there are some Harvard students in there, and how cool would it be to give my client a copy of something her ancestor wrote about himself in his youth.

What I’d come back for: I’m not particularly interested in the history of the university itself. I’ll be back for the 19th century class books, and maybe materials about events pertinent to the time that my research subjects were there.

Houghton Library

Wow, what a gem this building is! Its mission is the collection of rare books and manuscripts, and it has one of the largest collections of incunabula (books printed before 1501). Major collections include the books and papers of Longfellow, Edward Lear (also the subject of the current exhibit), Keats, e.e. cummings, and T.S. Eliot. One entire oval room, stunningly beautiful (it was decorated like a piece of Wedgwood jasperware, honest!), was devoted to a collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s works. We were treated to a view of the first book printed in British North America, a book of Psalms published in 1640; one of only thirteen copies, it’s more rare than a Gutenberg Bible.

Once again my interest was most taken by an item about ordinary individuals. Mary F. Peirce was a teacher at Cambridge High School in the late 1800s and left a collection about the school (a little more than a linear foot of material) that made its way to the Houghton Library. The papers include school records, report cards, newspaper clippings, letters, and more. Our guide admitted that it’s one of those miscellaneous undescribed collections that no one really knows about until someone takes the trouble to go through it. (My thought—Writing a finding aid/collection description would be a great little volunteer project for someone interested in Cambridge history.)

I’d love to see this building again and learn more about what’s here. The Edison and Newman Room to the left of the lobby displays the current exhibition and is open to the public without needing a researcher’s card. Tours of the building for the public take place every Friday at 2 p.m., and we were told that they are more in-depth than the hour-long tour and discussion that we had, so I’ll be back one Friday soon!

What I’d come back for: Besides the tour, I’m curious to know what other non-literary collections like Mary F. Peirce’s might be here. Longfellow intersects with a family I’m researching, so I’ll be keeping his papers in the back of my mind.

The Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America

We didn’t see much at all of the interior of this library, built in 1908 partly with Carnegie funding, but we were given a good overview of the types of material they collect here. Most of what we were shown was from collections about or from particular women, including Betty Friedan, Susan Brownmiller, Amelia Earhart (including her baby book which contained a lock of her very fine very straight and very blond baby hair), Judy Chicago, and Julia Child (who knew an Emmy is so large?). The Beecher-Stowe family papers, including those of Harriet Beecher Stow, are at the Schlesinger, and are in the process of being digitized. Collections not specific to particular individuals include the Black Women’s Oral History project of the 1980s.

Unlike the procedures at other Harvard libraries, research at the Schlesinger does not require that one first obtain a Harvard researcher card—as the archivist put it, we could walk in off the street to do research.

What I’d come back for: I didn’t come away feeling that I needed to keep any particular collection in mind, but that I should probably take a more thorough look at the Schlesinger’s website before dismissing it as a genealogical resource.


  1. Let me know if you want company for the Houghton library tour. Houghton is one of my family names, so I'll be looking into any link between the family and library.

  2. Exciting to read and very timely. I'm researching family members who went to Hawaii as sea captains and missionaries before 1850, and I just read that there was a Hawaii Club in Boston made up of descendants of these folks. The Club met in the 1880s - about 1900. The papers of the club, and PHOTOS (!!!) are held at the Houghton library. I can't wait to go!