Handbook for Librarians & Professional and Administrative Staff in the Harvard University Library

The Harvard University Library: A Brief History

The account can begin with 1638. This was the year instruction began in the College, and the first mention of its library is in a letter written during September 1638. The same month brought the death of John Harvard, a thirty-year-old clergyman who had come from England only the year before. He left the infant college half of his estate and his 400 books. There is a list of these, and we still have one of them, John Downame's The Christian Warfare against the Deuill, World, and Flesh, which was out on loan, overdue, when the first Harvard Hall, with the Library in it, burned in 1764. This book is now kept in a vault, but a facsimile of its title page can be seen in the entrance lobby of Houghton Library.

In an adjoining exhibition case are some of the books given by our eighteenth century benefactors, the Hollises. None of the members of this English family ever came to North America, but at least six of them gave books to the Library. Thomas Hollis of Lincoln's Inn is particularly noteworthy. After the fire of 1764, he redoubled his gifts, and, ten years later, his bequest of 500 pounds established our first endowed book fund, which is still being used for purchases. He had many books bound before he sent them, with symbols stamped on each binding to indicate the book's subject. If one notes an upside-down owl on the spine of a philosophical or theological work that he gave, it is not a binder's mistake but an indication that Hollis, though he thought Harvard ought to have the book, did not agree with it. He was liberal theologically and radical in politics, and he gave books to many libraries besides Harvard.

The library had only about 5,000 volumes in 1764 when the Harvard Hall fire left it with only 404; but gifts of books and money soon made it larger than before. In 1818, Harvard acquired the personal library of Christoph Daniel Ebeling, a professor at Hamburg University; this was the finest collection on America then in existence--a genuine research collection, even by standards of later times. There was rapid growth during the administration of John Langdon Sibley, who ransacked attics and solicited gifts from Harvard graduates, including soldiers in both Union and Confederate armies; he believed that at least one copy of everything printed ought to be kept somewhere. With Archibald Cary Coolidge, who began his gifts in the 1890s and served as director of the library from 1910 until his death in 1928, the scope of the collections outgrew North America and Western Europe. Coolidge was a pioneer in Slavic studies, and he built up an outstanding Slavic collection; but the Coolidge era also brought the foundations of our great resources in Hebraica and Judaica, the Middle East, the Far East, and Latin America.

Nineteenth-century growth was accompanied by decentralization. The Law School Library began in 1817; the Medical School started its own library in 1819, and the Divinity School in 1826. By 1900, there were thirty-seven Harvard libraries, including those in scientific institutions such as the Arboretum, Astronomical Observatory, Herbarium, Museum of Comparative Zoology, and Peabody Museum. Additions of the present century are libraries of the graduate schools of Business Administration, Design, Education, and Government, the libraries of the undergraduate houses, and more than forty others.

By 1991, the combined Harvard University Library contained nearly twelve million volumes and over 100,000 serials, making it the largest university library in the world.

The central collection, called the College Library, moved from the second Harvard Hall into a building all its own with the completion of Gore Hall in 1841. This first library building resembled King's College Chapel at Cambridge University, and President Quincy called it "a very pure specimen of the Gothic style of the fourteenth century in its form and proportions." Librarian Sibley, however, wrote that it was "unfit for a library from the first because erected in ignorance of the wants of a library." It was outgrown within twenty-five years; a wing containing the first modern bookstack was added in 1877, over the objections of Sibley, who had been campaigning for a completely new building.

Finally, in 1912, long after Sibley's time, the Titanic struck an iceberg, and Harry Elkins Widener and his father were drowned. Subsequently, Harry's mother gave the University a building to house both her son's personal library and Harvard's central research collection. Gore was torn down to make way for the Widener building, which was opened in 1915. Like Gore, it became overcrowded within twenty-five years. This time, however, the solution was not another central building, but underground stacks and new buildings nearby for rare books and manuscripts and for undergraduate services. Houghton Library was opened in 1942, Lamont in 1949, and Pusey in 1976. It would take too long even to list all the other buildings that house units of our far flung federation.

This federation has an administrative policy that has been called "coordinated decentralization." Each Harvard library is primarily responsible to a faculty, department of instruction, research institution, or other entity on which it depends for funds. Independence has been cherished and defended. In 1880, the Corporation tried to impose centralized acquisition and cataloging on Harvard libraries, but its decrees were ineffective. There has been a director of the University Library since 1910, a University Library Committee since 1964, and University Library Council since 1970; but the functions of director, Committee, and Council are essentially advisory, and coordination remains voluntary.

The College Library, which had been a separate department of the University, was attached to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 1949. Several libraries have become administrative units of the College Library since that date; now, in addition to Widener, Houghton, Lamont, and Pusey, it includes the Cabot, Fine Arts, Geological Sciences, Harvard-Yenching, Hilles, Littauer, Music, and Tozzer libraries.

Records of Harvard Library personnel begin with 1667, when Solomon Stoddard "was chosen Library keeper," and library laws were enacted specifying that he should keep the Library "duly swept" and the books "clean and orderly." He is regarded as the first Librarian of Harvard College; Nancy Cline, the current Librarian, is number seventy-two in the list.

The history of the library's catalogs, like the history of its personnel, goes back to the library laws of 1667, which provided for three manuscript catalogs, one of "books as they are placed," one an "alphabetical author list," and one a "list by donors." The first printed catalog appeared in 1723, and the first card catalog was begun in 1847 or `48. Printed book-form catalogs survived through the age of the card, and have been issued during the past thirty years for several major specialized libraries and collections at Harvard. Automation began during the 1960s, when much of the Widener Library shelflist was converted to machine-readable form, with printouts published in a sixty-volume series.

It became clear that, if Harvard libraries, large and small, were to make the most of cataloging done elsewhere and were to create a computer-based catalog for the University, they must substitute the Library of Congress classification for their individual systems and must adopt standardized cataloging rules. Changes along these lines during the 1970s made it possible to inaugurate the computer-generated Distributable Union Catalog on microfiche in 1981.

The next step in computerized bibliographical control is HOLLIS, an acronym for Harvard On-Line Library Information System. HOLLIS is a fine name for this new system, for it associates the Hollises with the technological revolution of the 1980s and '90s.

Automation has brought dramatic change, all the way from acquisition and catalogs to circulation and bibliographic databases. But, like such earlier innovations as typewriters, telephones, and electric lights not changing the purpose of the Library, which has always been to support teaching and research.

Edwin E. Williams
former Associate University Librarian
[1991, 1998]

Last modified on Thursday, April 18, 2002.