The Library: Three Jeremiads

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When I look back at the plight of American research libraries in 2010, I feel inclined to break into a jeremiad. In fact, I want to deliver three jeremiads, because research libraries are facing crises on three fronts; but instead of prophesying doom, I hope to arrive at a happy ending.

I can even begin happily, at least in describing the state of the university library at Harvard. True, the economic crisis hit us hard, so hard that we must do some fundamental reorganizing, but we can take measures to make a great library greater, and we can put our current difficulties into perspective by seeing them in the light of a long history. Having begun in 1638 with the 400 books in John Harvard’s library, we now have accumulated nearly 17 million volumes and 400 million manuscript and archival items scattered through 45,000 distinct collections. I could string out the statistics indefinitely. We collect in more than 350 languages and many different formats. We have 12.8 million digital files, more than 100,000 serials, nearly 10 million photographs, online records of 3.4 million zoological specimens, and endlessly rich special collections, including the largest library of Chinese works outside of China (with the exception of the Library of Congress) and more Ukrainian titles than exist in Ukraine.

We want to make it possible for other people to consult those collections by digitizing large portions of them and making them available, free of charge, to the rest of the world from an online repository. We group the material around themes such as women at work, immigration, epidemics and disease control, Islamic heritage, and scientific explorations—2.3 million pages in all. This Open Collections Program, as we call it, is part of a general policy of opening up our library to the outside world and sharing our intellectual wealth. The latest project is devoted to reading, its practices and history. It involved the digitization of more than 250,000 pages from manuscripts and rare books, including richly annotated works such as Melville’s copy of Emerson’s essays and Keats’s copy of Shakespeare.

There are few places aside from research libraries where rare books and e-books can be brought together. At Harvard we use combinations of them for teaching as well as research. I now teach a seminar on the history of books in our rare book library. It begins with Gutenberg. The students investigate the origins of printing by examining a Gutenberg Bible, the real thing, and they do not just stare at it from a respectful distance, but they are invited to leaf (carefully) through its pages in order to appreciate the varieties of rubrication and typographical design. The seminar ends in a high-tech lab on the bottom floor of Widener Library, where experts in digitization explain how to adjust nuances of color while scanning medieval manuscripts.

Despite financial pressure, we therefore are advancing on two fronts,…


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