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Harvard University Library Notes / November 2007 / No. 1340
The Tale of John Harvard's Surviving Book
As the University marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Harvard—not the institution's founder as he is sometimes credited, but rather its first major benefactor—a great many details about both the man and the legacy of his library are lost to time.
It is known that John Harvard was born in the Southwark borough of London in 1607 and was baptized on November 29 in the parish church of St. Saviour, which is now known as Southwark Cathedral. The son of Katherine Rogers and Robert Harvard, a butcher, he attended St. Saviour's Grammar School, where his father was a governor. In 1625, the plague swept through London, claiming most of Harvard's immediate family, including his father and several siblings.
Two years later, John Harvard entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, graduating in 1632. In 1636, he married a woman named Ann Sadler, and the following year he set sail for New England, seeking religious freedom and settling in Charlestown, where he was named a town minister.
He soon after fell ill with tuberculosis, dying on September 14, 1638, at age 31. Harvard had bequeathed half of his estate, £779, and his entire library of some 400 volumes to the "New College"—created in 1636 by an act of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony—in Newtowne, now Cambridge. Buried in the Phipps Street Cemetery in Charlestown, the man who gave Harvard its name had lived in Massachusetts for less than a year and a half.
The Downame Book
Over the years, many scholars have tried to trace John Harvard's books. The biggest obstacle has been the 1764 fire that destroyed the early library along with the rest of the original College. The fire spared only the 400 or so volumes that were on loan to faculty and students. According to tradition, just one volume from John Harvard's collection survived. That book was the fourth edition of The Christian Warfare Against the Devil World and Flesh by John Downame, published in 1634.
The claim of the book's origins is not a new one. Just inside the cover, stored in its red morocco case, the reader finds a handwritten note from 19th-century College Librarian John L. Sibley, dated May 24, 1843. The note begins, "This book is the only one in the Library which, beyond a doubt was given by John Harvard."
Unfortunately, John Harvard never inscribed his name in the volume, which would have provided more definitive proof for scholars. "There's no signature," says Peter Accardo, coordinator of programs at Houghton Library. "It's one of the things that have troubled people over the years."
Still, The Christian Warfare itself speaks to its history. "There is a good deal of physical evidence in this book," says Accardo. Much of the proof lies in three small digits handwritten just inside the cover: 3.2.8. This, explains Accardo, refers to the early library's cataloging system, which would have placed the book in bookcase number 3, on shelf number 2, as volume 8—a setup that would have worked for a library much, much smaller than that of today. The low cataloging numbers suggest that this particular book indeed resided in the College Library from the very beginning.
Furthermore, although it counts as later evidence, a 1723 catalog of the library's entire 3,500 volumes lists the book, indicating that it clearly existed in the library prior to the fire. The volume contains a very old bookplate, dating to the late 1700s, but that would have been added some 175 years after the book first entered the library.
However, the traditional story no longer remains quite so simple. "Today it's pretty well received that it's not the only book that survives from John Harvard's library," says Accardo. "Personally, I've brought lots of books into the Houghton collections that were once in the Widener stacks. In provenance work, there is no such thing as an easy answer."
That said, the question still warrants a good deal of research, and it is difficult to say what other possible titles might make the same claim as The Christian Warfare. Today the Downame book is seldom used by researchers but sits on display in Houghton's lobby in a sectioned bookcase labeled "Harvard." Alongside this original piece of Harvard's legacy reside copies of many of the books he gave to the library in 1638.