Amy Gunzelmann, education specialist at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, shows animal bones to a rapt group of kids at the Valente Branch of the Cambridge Public Library.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Into local libraries, and into lives

6 min read

The popular John Harvard Book Series concludes with a bang

The eyes of several children went wide as Amy Gunzelmann, education specialist at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (HMNH), carried a loosely wrapped bundle to the floor of the Valente Branch of the Cambridge Public Library.

“We might need to clear some space,” Gunzelmann said. “Because the snake that shed this skin was really long.”

As she slowly unrolled the 12-foot skin on the library floor, kids jumped out of their chairs to run their fingers over the scales. One boy shrieked and jerked his hand away — and then immediately lunged back to touch the skin again.

Gunzelmann presented a treasure trove of HMNH resources to parents and kids, challenging the standing-room-only crowd to think about the different classifications of zoology, as part of the John Harvard Book Celebration program. Celebrating Harvard’s 375th anniversary and its close ties to the Boston and Cambridge communities, the John Harvard Book Celebration has included the donation of more than 400 books to libraries, 17 lectures by Harvard faculty and members of the University’s Board of Overseers at local libraries, and 18 programs for children and youth. This particular youth-based programming reached more than 200 children in the Greater Boston area this spring, concluding with this last event in late April.

“The John Harvard Book Celebration has broadened the boundaries of our campus to include all of Boston and Cambridge by reaching into every public library in those communities,” said Christine Heenan, vice president of Public Affairs & Communications. “Harvard faculty, students, and alumni welcomed the chance to share their expertise and ideas with parents and children. That kind of dialogue, which happens regularly in Harvard’s community programs, creates ties that enrich the University and cities we call home.”

For Gunzelmann, who also brought fish bones, owl and turkey feathers, shark teeth, animal furs, and vertebrae replicas from HMNH to the library for the kids to examine, the program was “really kind of special.”

“A lot of students come to the museum with their school classes,” said Gunzelmann.  “But this brings us right into their neighborhood, right to their own backyard. What really gets students engaged is working with the real specimens up close, so that we can discuss it after they take a close look at it. We even concluded today’s programming by talking about how kids can explore the insects and animals in their own backyard, and how they can use the classification systems we learned today to better understand those animals.”

For Julia Konrad ’13, vice president of the Student Advisory Committee at the Institute of Politics (IOP), participating in the John Harvard Book Celebration was a way to put her focus on politics and citizenship into real practice in the community. “We created a workshop on citizenship, which we held at the West Roxbury Branch [of the Boston Public Library],” Konrad said. “We based it on the U.S. citizenship exam questions. It was great to see these third- and fourth-graders puzzling through really challenging questions of citizenship and government, talking about freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, what qualities are important in people who are members of a president’s cabinet, and so on.”

As Harvard undergraduates, Konrad said, the library workshop “was an invaluable experience. As students, we very rarely leave Cambridge, let alone Harvard Square, and it can be easy to lose sight of what’s going on outside of school — what we’re really arguing, studying, and writing about. In asking these kids questions and challenging them, it felt like we were not only inspiring a love of American politics, but also that we were helping to instill real passion in them for learning, challenging, and staking your claim in the world.”

Wendy Derjue-Holzer, education director at the HMNH, said that bringing Harvard resources, researchers, and students into the libraries showed the community that Harvard is part of their lives in a way they hadn’t previously considered. “When they see us in their library, in their neighborhood, it broadens their perspective,” she said. “It gives them new and different connections. It shows that Harvard fits into their lives in another way, not just in the classroom. It’s great to be part of that bridge between the community and other parts of Harvard.”

In addition to books, college readiness, and politics, the John Harvard Book Celebration’s children and youth programming also provided opportunities for cultural and artistic performances by Harvard students, including a concert performed by Mariachi Veritas de Harvard at the Boston Public Library’s Connolly Branch in Jamaica Plain. “It was a real family-oriented event,” said George Zuo ’13. “It was great to see all the kids getting excited about our sound. Some members of the audience really appreciated that we were bringing our music to the community, others liked the diversity of our group, and others enjoyed the energy of our sound, but it was great to have an experience where Harvard students and families in the Boston community all got together to celebrate culture and books.”

More than 40 students volunteered as part of the program, including representatives from Harvard College Stories for Orphans, Harvard College Class Clowns, Harvard Story-Time Players, the Institute of Politics, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Language and Literacy Masters program.

For Konrad, the greatest impact of change may not have been experienced by the kids, but by the students who helped bring the programming to the community. “We can forget that it’s a privilege to go to Harvard,” she said. “Hanging out with those kids in the library was an extension of that privilege. It was a valuable experience for the kids and for us — maybe more for us, because we got a chance to present what we cared about, and then got to see them respond to that and see them get excited about the same things, too. I felt really lucky to be part of it.”