Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The other Cambridge

While in Boston, Charlotte and I visited Harvard University for a day of meetings and tours.  It was handy that we had organised this in advance since the Harvard campus was closed to visitors due to the Occupy Harvard movement!

Occupy Harvard
First up was a tour of the Widener Library, which has holdings for the social sciences and humanities.  This impressive library has around three million volumes and miles of stacks, which are open to students for browsing.  There is a network of underground tunnels connecting various libraries, which left us feeling like we were in the middle of a maze.  There are around 90 libraries attached to the University with faculty libraries being as small as individual rooms in Widener or as big as the Langdell Law Library.  I particularly liked the option to rent out a carrell for the term - I would have appreciated that at uni when I was more than miffed if someone got into the library before me and sat at my desk.

Beautiful picture of a complete stranger outside the Widener
Next up was a well-orchestrated afternoon in the archives.  These are the oldest archives in the country and contain 50,000 linear feet of records with 20 members of staff.  There are around 40 archives and special collections at Harvard University for the various faculties but the University Archives focus on records management and the preservation of records relating to the life of the University.

The Archives works with faculty members to ensure that the course assignments use the primary sources from their collections.  This has been highly successful as has the similar project at the Syracuse University Research Centre but at Harvard it is not the archivists or special collections staff doing the teaching but the faculty staff who introduce students to the collections and encourage them to use them.

We had a tour of the stacks and introduced to some of the issues of archival storage.  The Archives stores much of their material in a warehouse, which has much better climate control and even has the surrounding trees cut down and trimmed so that, in the event of a storm, no trees will fall on the warehouse and potentially damage it.  Items are only sent to the warehouse when a full EAD finding aid has been created and there is a rigorous checking in and out system for items in transit to ensure that the location of items is known at all times and adequate climate conditions met as much as possible.

One member of staff is focused on ensuring that faculty members leave their papers to Harvard when they leave and this is an aspect of archives that I had not considered.  The University Archives are actively working to safeguard the future of the collections.  This member of staff is also in charge of collection management and made a very valid point when discussing records of the surrounding area.  If an archive is the only one in the vicinity then does it have an obligation to collect items related to the community?  The local history of Cambridge is inextricably linked to the history of Harvard and so their exhibitions incorporate this focus.

View from Longfellow bridge towards Boston
We got a sneak peak inside the vault which holds the most precious items of the collections such as the official Harvard crimson and valuable items such as J.F.K.'s dissertation.  Very exciting.  It was great to be able to discuss issues such as EAD, digitisation, social media (not embraced), budget, creating e-mail archives etc. with another University's Archives and it really hit home, having Charlotte on hand too, that archives and libraries really aren't that different across the pond.

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