June 04, 1998
University Gazette


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Counting Libraries at Harvard: Not as Easy as You Think

How many libraries does Harvard have? This question, it turns out, is not easy to answer.

The Harvard University Library, the oldest library in the U.S. and the largest university library in the world, is not one library but a library system. A Guide to the Harvard University Library states that the collections "are housed in over 90 libraries, most located in Cambridge and Boston, but others as distant as Washington, D.C., and Florence, Italy."

It's hard to count Harvard's libraries for at least two reasons: there are so many of them, and first you have to define what you mean by a library.

The Harvard College Library (HCL) is the largest and oldest of Harvard's libraries, dating to John Harvard's bequest of books in 1638. However, the HCL is not really a library, but a collection of 12 libraries, including Widener Library, Cabot Science, Fine Arts, Harvard-Yenching (East Asia), Hilles (undergraduate -- Radcliffe Quad), Houghton (rare books and manuscripts), Kummel (geology), Lamont (undergraduate -- Harvard Yard), Littauer (government and economics), Loeb Music, and Tozzer (anthropology).

Meanwhile, the term "Harvard University Library" refers confusingly not only to the entire system, but also to the administrative branch of the system, which is located in Wadsworth House in Harvard Yard and headed by Sidney Verba, Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the Harvard University Library. As Professor Verba likes to say, "In the Harvard tradition of clarity of function, I am not a librarian and I direct no libraries." Nor, he might add, does HUL (as the the administrative branch is often called) contain any books. However, HUL does include the University Archives, which is not a library but has vast holdings of manuscripts, documents, personal papers, and University records, and is considered part of the library system. HUL also includes the Harvard Depository, which is not a library either, but a system of warehouses in Southborough, Mass., where Harvard's libraries store millions of volumes that don't fit on campus shelves.

Then there are libraries within libraries. Widener Library, itself the flagship of the College Library and the entire Harvard University Library system, also contains many small libraries, typically affiliated with academic departments. These include Child Memorial (English literature) Library, Robinson Celtic Seminar, and Smyth Classical.

Just as some Harvard libraries do not have their own buildings, some Harvard library buildings do not have their own libraries. Pusey Library, built below ground in Harvard Yard between Lamont and and Houghton libraries, has no librarian and no collections of its own. Instead, it houses some of Widener's collections, the University Archives, the Harvard Theatre Collection, the Harvard Map Collection, and the Theodore Roosevelt [Class of 1880] Collection. Each of these "collections" has a librarian and staff of its own.

And don't neglect to count the residential Houses' libraries, the department libraries, the special libraries, and the Faculty (as in Faculty of Law or Faculty of Medicine) libraries.

Have we missed a few? Probably.

--Timothy Hanke, publications coordinator in the University Library


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College