Campus & Community

University libraries show off rarities:

3 min read

Six major libraries collaborate on one special exhibition

Thomas Thacher (1620-1678), a minister at Boston’s Old South Church, wrote the first medical treatise published in the American colonies, ‘A Brief Rule to Guide the Common People of New-England How to Order Themselves & Theirs in the Small-pocks, or Measels’ (Boston, reprinted for Benjamin Eliot, 1702). The exhibit features the second edition.

It is commonly held that the rare collections of Harvard’s libraries are awe-inspiring, albeit widely dispersed among various faculties. And they are; however, through Nov. 27, bibliophiles have the unique opportunity to view rare and historical materials from the collections of six major libraries in one central location. The exhibition – “Some Special Collections at Harvard University Libraries” – will be housed in the Edison and Newman Room of Houghton Library.

From the scalpel and probe used in the first public operation performed using ether as anesthesia at Massachusetts General Hospital, to a letter typed and signed by Amelia Earhart, to the first business training manual circa 1640, the exhibit underscores the depth of the University’s rare holdings.

Items from Harvard Law School Library, Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Countway Library of Medicine, Gutman Library, Baker Library, and the Andover-Harvard Theological Library are included in this collaborative effort – the idea of William P. Stoneman, Florence Fearrington Librarian of Houghton Library. Houghton holds the rare collections of Harvard College Library.

“This collaborative exhibit reminds us of the priceless resources all Harvard’s libraries have collected and preserved over the years,” said Sidney Verba, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the University Library. “President Summers has reminded us that cooperation across parts of the University is essential to our success in the next century. I am pleased that Harvard’s libraries are helping to show the way again.”

Organized by library, the exhibition includes not only select materials but also information about each library’s history, mission, and holdings. While the exhibit case of the Harvard Law School Library features surveillance photographs taken by the first detective agency in New England, and the Graduate School of Education’s Gutman Library holds a 19th century catalog featuring the latest styles of schoolhouse furniture, not all holdings are so predictable. For example, Countway Library surprisingly holds a letter from Thomas Jefferson, which reports on early experimentation with vaccines.

According to Stoneman, “Historians or political scientists who disregard Countway Library of Medicine, for instance, as a possible source of information may overlook important material. Users in a specific field may not think of libraries outside of that field as a resource to be explored. We hope that this exhibition helps raise awareness, opens new research pathways, and encourages library users to look for rare holdings in other Harvard libraries as well as in Houghton.”