Robert Darnton, currently the Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of European History at Princeton University, will become Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the Harvard University Library, effective July 1, 2007, Provost Steven E. Hyman announced today (May 22).
An alumnus of Harvard College and Harvard’s Society of Fellows, a former Rhodes Scholar and MacArthur Fellow, and Chevalier of France’s Légion D’Honneur, Darnton is an internationally recognized scholar on the history of the book and the literary world of Enlightenment France. Darnton will succeed Professor Sidney Verba, who announced his retirement last September after having served as library director for 23 years.
“Robert Darnton is a scholar of exceptional creativity and distinction whose intellectual interests are ideally suited for the leadership of one of the world’s great libraries,” said Hyman. “He has been a pioneer in the pursuit of history ‘from below,’ moving beyond the formal thought of a period to reconstruct the world view of whole societies or large groups of people by using the tools of anthropology and examining alternative writings and means of communication. Of particular significance for this new role, Darnton is a creator of the field known as the ‘history of the book,’ as well as an entrepreneur in exploring electronic books, Web publishing, and other forms of new media.”
“We are truly fortunate that Bob Darnton has decided to return to Harvard,” said President-elect Drew G. Faust. “Bob is one of the most distinguished historians working today. His deep engagement with the history of the creation and dissemination of information will provide him with unparalleled insight as he grapples with the challenges and opportunities facing the Harvard libraries in the years ahead. I look forward to working with Bob in this area of mutual passion and interest.”
“I feel greatly honored to become Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the University Library — honored and awed, because Harvard has the greatest library system of any university in the world, one that began in 1638 with the 400 books of John Harvard’s library and now includes nearly 16 million volumes in more than 80 separate libraries run by a staff of over 1,200, including over 400 librarians,” Darnton said. “The Harvard University Library is one of the country’s greatest intellectual assets, but it is enormously complex and expensive. It must maintain its leadership while helping to shape the new information society of the 21st century.
“Having, as a historian, studied the world of books in the distant past, I now have an opportunity to do something for the cause of books and book learning in the present,” Darnton continued. “And I want to help find a way in which the new and the old media can reinforce each other, strengthening and transforming the world of learning.”
“The rapid transition of libraries requires a leader with a great deal of range, as well as strong support from the University in fundraising and in the allocation of resources essential to the library’s mission,” said Hyman, who led the search for the library director. “Given the importance of the Harvard library as an international resource for teachers and scholars, I am pleased to pledge that support to a director who brings such distinction and passion to this undertaking.”
Over the years, Harvard’s library system has undergone considerable growth and transition. President A. Lawrence Lowell appointed the first director of the Harvard University Library in 1909. In 1977, during his first tenure as president, Derek Bok created an ad hoc committee to review the administration of the University libraries and create a more coordinated system. Today, almost 30 years after that committee issued its report, the Harvard libraries, coordinated by a central staff, are responsible for preservation, digital initiatives, off-site storage, and supporting teaching and research within the University.
Darnton’s appointment follows a six-month search led by Hyman and assisted by a search advisory committee of 12 individuals, including nine faculty members from a range of disciplines, the librarians of Harvard College and the Law School, and the University’s Chief Information Officer. The committee met regularly throughout the search and received input from a wide range of individuals and groups engaged with the Harvard libraries.
Darnton is the author of numerous books and articles. His latest book is “George Washington’s False Teeth: An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century” (2003), and he is currently completing a book on the art and politics of slander in the 18th century. His earlier books include “Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France” (1968), “The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie” (1979), “The Literary Underground of the Old Regime” (1982), “The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History” (1984), “The Kiss of Lamourette: Reflections in Cultural History” (1989), “Revolution in Print: the Press in France 1775-1800” (1989, Daniel Roche co-editor), “Edition et sédition” (1991, written in French, not available in English), which won the French Prix Médicis, “Berlin Journal, 1989-1990” (1991), and “The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Prerevolutionary France” (1995), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award
Darnton is a graduate of Harvard (A.B., 1960) and Oxford (B. Phil., 1962; D.Phil., 1964), where he was a Rhodes Scholar. After a brief stint as a reporter for The New York Times, he became a junior fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard. He began teaching in 1968 at Princeton, where he now is the Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of European History and directs the Center for the Study of Books and Media.
He has been the recipient of the Leo Gershoy Prize of the American Historical Association (for “The Business of Enlightenment”), a MacArthur Fellowship (1982-87), the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (for “The Great Cat Massacre”), Princeton University’s Behrman Humanities Award (1987), the Gutenberg Prize (2004), and the American Printing History Association Prize (2005). In 1999, Darnton was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, the highest award given by the French government, in recognition of his work.
Darnton has also served as president of the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (1987-91) and of the American Historical Association (1999). He has been elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the British Academy, the Academia Europaea, and the Académie Royale de Langue et de Littérature Françaises of Belgium. He has been a visiting professor or fellow at many universities and institutes for advanced study, and his outside activities include service as a trustee of the New York Public Library and the Oxford University Press (USA).
Darnton and his wife, Susan, are the parents of three grown children: Nicholas, Catherine, and Margaret.