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 Archivesa division of the University
Libraryhas 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
At what point in Harvard's history do the Archives begin?
You can trace an Archives collection back to the 1740s. And actually, the
Harvard Archivesthe official recordsare largely complete because Harvard
hasn't had many fires. When the library burned in 1764, the Archives were
in Wadsworth Housewhich 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 1890sa 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 LibrarianI think that was what his title washe 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.
Over the course of your tenure, you've obviously seen a great deal of
change. Technological change is obvious. But what else?
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 neededand has
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.
That goes back to what year?
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.
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 Archivesthat is, in the combined archival and records
management programswe have three major collecting areas:
- The official records of the University.
- Harvardianawhich 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.
Within these three collecting areas, where is the focus of the teaching and
research activities that go on in the Archives?
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.
You have been described, personally, as the embodiment of Harvard's
corporate memory. Is that accurate?
I hope not. The question of what is in fact historical is very subjective.
Based a lot on my 40 years hereand seeing what research trends areit'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 collectionsas 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
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?
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 Salta great silver thingand
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
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.
Do you have any final thoughts you'd like to share?
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
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?
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
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