Veritas Huloar
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Harvard University Library

Report of Sidney Verba

Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the University Library


While a 1636 vote of the Massachusetts General Court appropriated 400 to found an unnamed college in a place then called Newtowne, it was John Harvard’s 1638 bequest—his personal library of 400 books, together with 700—that set Harvard College on its course and led to the gathering of its first class here in Cambridge. Looking back from the vantage point of Harvard’s tercentenary, Samuel Eliot Morrison expressed some surprise at the breadth he discerned in John Harvard’s library:

There were 329 titles, and over 400 volumes. Nearly three-quarters of the collection consists of theological works, mainly in Latin, but by no means all of a Calvinistic or even a Protestant cast . . . There were ancient classics in the original tongues, including some rather unexpected works such as the Satires of Persius and Juvenal; and famous translations such as North’s Plutarch, Holland’s Pliny, and Chapman’s Homer . . . It would have been no contemptible library for an educated English gentleman of the day.

Nearly 400 years later, the roots of Harvard College, with its mission to raise up ministers for service to the Protestant new world, are difficult to discern. The University’s scope is comprehensive and its mission is to advance knowledge, promote teaching and research, and help society discover new ways to overcome its most pressing problems.

Across the course of four centuries, Harvard’s library system has evolved as the largest university library in the world, with its holdings distributed across more than 80 individual libraries. In addition to more than 15.8 million volumes, the collections include journals, primary source materials, images, audio and video recordings, and digital resources that span a wide range of subjects, languages, and dates. A vast number of rare—and often unique—books, manuscripts, photographs, maps, ephemera, and other materials constitute Harvard’s special collections—the rarest of the rare. Meanwhile, visitors to the Harvard Libraries web site ( can find and use thousands of individual digital materials from the Harvard collections, with more available each day.

Can there be any doubt that we need more information about the world? Today there are no geographic or cultural boundaries to our need to know. But we have two problems. One is we have too little information; the other is that we have too much information.

Because legitimate research materials now include not only thousands of licensed holdings that the University does not own or control but also a plethora of web-based documents, publications, blogs, and other materials whose authority may be difficult to assess or establish, librarians work more and more closely than ever with students and faculty, helping them to find their way along the new paths created by an information revolution that shows no sign of abatement. Harvard librarians are dedicated professionals at the top of their game. They push the envelope to make us better and better in all ways. Indeed, I have come to appreciate over the years how wonderful the Harvard librarians are. We talk about our collection as being the great thing of the Harvard library, and it is, but when you get right down to it, it is the librarians who are the great thing, because they are people who really want to serve others.

Our librarians and our IT professionals are developing new and unimaginably advanced methods for searching out information. They will do so because we can now capture the full text of works—not just a few keywords or subject headings. They are working with information specialists across the country to show us new ways to discern what a book has in it—by looking for particular combinations of words, particular themes, or who else has referred to it. In a way, it is to allow potential readers to ask what anybody would ask about a book. Is this book of interest to me? What’s it all about? To some of us, this has become known as the Google-ization of the research library. Whatever you choose to call these shifts in search methodology, they are changing the nature of scholarship.

As we withstand and, in fact, learn to love this storm of virtual activity, it is important to recall that each Harvard library is still a unique place of tremendous importance to the University. From Widener to the graduate and professional school libraries, almost every one of the libraries at Harvard has renovated its reading room in recent years, and this is because people use those reading rooms. If you go to the new reading rooms in Widener, you’ll see that they’re filled with people, some of whom are using laptops on Harvard’s wireless network to access the great range of digital information that’s available. Some are writing, while others work in small groups. Naps are not unknown. But a surprising number of library patrons are still doing something very odd: they’re sitting there reading books and journals. The digital and paper media are both alive and well, and are used as part of a seamless body of information. And people still go to the library because it’s a good place to work.

In Shakespeare’s Tempest, Miranda reminds Caliban that she taught him to speak: “I endowed thy purposes with words that made them known.” And Caliban replies, “You taught me language, and my profit on it is I know how to curse.” We know that new technologies and the Internet and the information they provide can be used for good and for evil. Though there is much to be pessimistic about, remember that Caliban’s mordant comment comes in a work filled with some of the most glorious language and sentiments in the English language. The glory of libraries is that they preserve and disseminate such creations, along with our scientific achievements and the record of the follies of humanity. The information revolution makes that task more complicated, but makes our ability to preserve and enlighten greater. So let’s hope we can do it: it will be worth the effort.