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Coakley's Book Charts the History of Harvard's Diplomas

While sifting through a file of old Harvard diplomas in the Class Report Office, J.F. Coakley, manuscript cataloger at Houghton, came up with the idea for his new book, The Harvard BA Degree Diploma 1813-2000. Coakley conducted extensive research in the Harvard Archives, where the collection of diplomas dates back to 1703. "Back then, Harvard didn't issue printed diplomas," he explains. "If a student wanted a diploma, he had to have it written out by one of the scribes who worked around Harvard Square and take it to the University president himself to have it signed and sealed." The manuscript diplomas in the Archives, Coakley found out, were largely the result of collecting efforts by Samuel Eliot Morison, the great Harvard historian of his day. Morison's 1933 article "Harvard Degree Diplomas" has been the only scholarship on the subject until now.

In 1813, Harvard began printing diplomas, and since then, the design of the bachelor's diploma has changed only five times. The current design, in place since 1962, features an oak-leaf device designed by Rudolph Ruzicka. This image has been adopted as the symbol of the Harvard University Library and it serves as the basis for the Harvard College Library logo.

Coakley's book documents the changes in each new diploma design—in style, wording, and printing technology. Until 1961, diplomas were printed from engraved plates. Later editions were printed from type. Today, Harvard diplomas are printed digitally, using the Xerox Docutech system.

The Harvard BA Degree Diploma, researched, written, and printed by Coakley in a little over a year, compiles interesting information about a little-known aspect of the University's history. The book includes reproductions—some freshly printed from old plates—of the various diplomas used over the years. Coakley's book, underwritten by the Microglyphics Fund at Houghton, is published by the Harvard College Library.

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Last modified on Thursday, April 18, 2002.