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Interview: Harley Holden

Harley P. Holden, the University Archivist, came to Harvard in 1960 immediately after completing his undergraduate degree in history at Boston University. He arrived at the Archives at the behest of his neighbor and family friend in the nearby town of Shirley (where Holden still lives) Clifford K. Shipton, the long-time, legendary "custodian" of the University Archives. Shipton sent Holden to the final six-week session of the Harvard-Radcliffe Institute for Historical and Archival Management, and his career was launched. Holden has served as University Archivist since 1971. Library Notes interviewed Harley P. Holden on June 28, 2001.

During his forty-year tenure, the Archives—a division of the University Library—has grown both in size and in complexity in response to the changes in the University. Its responsibilities, as defined by Corporation vote, are University-wide. While the Archives includes materials relating to the history of the University, its primary responsibility is for the official and permanent record of the University. Through an innovative integration of archives and records management functions, the Archives ensures that the administrative, legal, and historical values of records are monitored closely.

LN
At what point in Harvard's history do the Archives begin?

HH
You can trace an Archives collection back to the 1740s. And actually, the Harvard Archives—the official records—are largely complete because Harvard hasn't had many fires. When the library burned in 1764, the Archives were in Wadsworth House—which was then the president's house. So we have full runs of minutes of the corporation, the overseers, the faculty, and so on, going back to the beginning.

Along the way, various individuals have stressed the importance of archival programs. John Langdon Sibley, who was kind of the patron saint of the Archives, collected a lot of historical material in the 1850s. And Jared Sparks, who was president then, was interested, too. And, an earlier president, Josiah Quincy, had written a history, so he'd had to gather material together and much of that was bound. There was an archivist-well, somebody called an archivist in the 1890s—a man called Brown.

For Harvard's Archives, a turning point came in the 1930s with the tercentenary celebrations of 1936. Samuel Eliot Morison, the great narrative historian, had been assigned the duty of writing the history of Harvard. He realized that things were not as gathered together as they might be. So he started this work in the late 1920s and continued during the early and middle 1930s. It took quite a while. He worked with Mrs. Dakin, who was in charge of the Archives collection, and he had a young research assistant Clifford K. Shipton. In 1937, when Keyes Metcalf became Harvard College Librarian—I think that was what his title was—he realized that there should be an Archives. At the same time, Samuel Eliot Morison was pushing it. And also Jerome Greene who was Secretary to the Corporation. They all thought it would be a good idea and it coalesced, and so, in 1938, we became officially set up-as a predecessor of the way we are set up now. And rules were established for what we would collect and how it would be done.

So when I came here in 1960, the Harvard Archives was 22 years old in its present form. There've only been three of us in charge: Dr. Shipton, Kimball Elkins, and myself.

LN
Over the course of your tenure, you've obviously seen a great deal of change. Technological change is obvious. But what else?

HH
General attitudes. When I came here Harvard was still in many ways an old-boy kind of place. You had a lot of Harvard graduates filling administrative positions in a rather genteel way. Money was not thought of as closely as it has been in later years. Harvard needed—and has gotten—better management.

And as far as the Archives was concerned, our emphasis began to shift. Rather than exist primarily as the organized memory of a great University, the Archives began to emphasize, as it were, "practical" uses. The best example of this is the Records Management Program and the vital services it provides to the Harvard administration.

LN
That goes back to what year?

HH
Further back than you might think. Under a corporation vote of 1939, which was updated in 1995, the Archives is responsible for the official records of the University.

It's important to remember that everything we have starts out as records. But only a small percentage of those records are deemed of archival quality. I don't think it's as small as 10 percent that we keep. But it's not a lot more than that.

So I don't know that I've really said enough about the Records Management Office (RMO), it's just that through Records Management, we provide a systematic and practical service to the University.

One of our jobs is to keep the University out of court, too. By keeping close track of the records and by knowing what we need to keep and sifting out the things that we should get rid of-in the appropriate time. As time goes on the University has grown in its complexity, so too has the role of the Archives and its Records Management program.

LN
An example?

HH
A few years ago, the government had raised questions about radiation experiments conducted at the Medical School fifty years ago. We didn't have much of that material here in the University Archives, but we knew where it was. We had access to it. We could get hold of it. We had legal obligations to provide information. The situation was sufficiently complex that the Medical School added some special staff to aid with compliance. But the situation turned out well, and it was the catalyst for the creation of a much more formal Medical School Archives.

Today in the Archives—that is, in the combined archival and records management programs—we have three major collecting areas:

  • The official records of the University.
  • Harvardiana—which we might call the less-than-official records. Records of student organizations. Odds and ends about such objects as the college pump. Unofficial publications. Ephemera.
  • And the third category is faculty papers. We have between seven and eight hundred collections of those.

LN
Within these three collecting areas, where is the focus of the teaching and research activities that go on in the Archives?

HH
In general we are often used by historians of various stripes and by other scholars or researchers. For example, Jim Hankins, a professor of history, approached us about having his students pursue original research topics in Harvard history. And so, we have been of a great deal of assistance to his students. This is also true for students in the history of science who make use of faculty papers among other things. But we also have students from other universities. One scholar from a neighboring institution has been doing a study of the houses of the Back Bay. Most of the owners of the houses were Harvard graduates. So he sends students here to use class reports and the like. We have groups from Boston College among other universities. I find it necessary nowadays to emphasize our role in and service to the Harvard community due to the growth of our own internal constituents and the demands made on the collections and staff. Whereas, when I first was here we all assumed, noblesse oblige, that we were all here to serve the world. Nevertheless, we have unique material which is not available elsewhere and we do have an obligation to make it available. Although our first obligation is to the institution, fortunately we don't need to draw lines most of the time. But every year, we respond to a growing number of questions from people all over the world. Perhaps 3,000 by mail and another 10,000 by phone, fax, and email. In addition to visiting researchers who come to Cambridge and stay a year.

LN
You have been described, personally, as the embodiment of Harvard's corporate memory. Is that accurate?

HH
I hope not. The question of what is in fact historical is very subjective. Based a lot on my 40 years here—and seeing what research trends are—it's the archivists who decide what the historians and scholars will have to do their research with. But in recent years, we've continued to improve scholarly research efforts by several means including the use of technology to create electronic finding aids to these special collections—as opposed to relying on an individual's memory or the traditional methods of handwritten notebooks or ledgers.

It's also possible greatly to over-emphasize the role an individual plays. The last few years that Dr. Shipton was with us, he came in one day a week, and I saved my questions for him. I'd carefully write down everything that he said and I put my notes in a box that's still on the shelf behind you. I didn't open that box for about 30 years. Somehow, we seemed to get along very well without having all of that detailed information. I suppose this was so in large part because much of the details live in my memory. In retrospect I would have to admit that there is value in being familiar with precedents and other institutional history without having to make reference to notes.

LN
Before we end, we have an event coming in October. Can you talk about the connection of the Archives to the installation of a Harvard president?

HH
Yes. As I told a group at Adams House a few months ago, one of the duties of my job has been performed only six times since 1869 and this will be the third time that I have performed it. And that is, when a new Harvard president is installed, there are certain items, kept in the Archives vault, that are present: the Harvard Charter, the keys to the University, the Great Seal of 1650, and the earliest record books. And then, at the Fogg, there are a couple of things: the Great Salt—a great silver thing—and the President's Chair. The Chair has been used by presidents since Holyoke around 1740. And so, we have somebody who will be coming over here from Fogg Preservation to make sure everything is in proper shape. But I have always insisted that I be on the platform right next to the items. Because, at the conclusion of the ceremony, everybody comes up to congratulate the president. They all swarm around, but I ignore them completely and keep my eye on these historical objects. We have a police escort over. Usually members of my staff show up right at the end and we carry the materials back.

So on October 12, Harvard will install its 27th president-and I will don my father's 86-year-old commencement gown and one of my MA hoods, and guard Harvard's symbolic treasures up on the platform by Memorial Church.

LN
Do you have any final thoughts you'd like to share?

HH
There will always be a need for the kind of stored information (and institutional patrimony) that we keep in the Archives. Whether we're going to be called an Archive or some name like Information Center, I do not know. But I think there will be great changes in the future. Certainly, more materials will be available electronically, some things may be stored elsewhere, and everyone will need to be highly technologically knowledgeable.

LN
All of us today have so many varied interactions with and demands from technology. Do you ever find that our technology advances are distracting you from your core concerns?

HH
I have discussed this with some of my colleague archivists. I believe that deployed appropriately, information technology should add value to our collections by facilitating searches or enhancing intellectual access and by making materials available electronically. I do worry in the short term that the need to focus on technology may impinge on time spent in learning about the content of the collections-at least within the Archives. It's particularly important that Archivists remain in touch with the collections that they steward. But technology IS giving us a great deal more access to materials-and many of those materials were formerly known in our heads and nowhere else!

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Last modified on Thursday, April 18, 2002.