First, I want to come clean: My initial intent in writing this photo essay was selfish. I knew that Harvard held a scattering of libraries around Cambridge and Boston; I knew that these libraries have old, strange, beautiful, and surprising things in them. A photo essay seemed like a good excuse to see them, and under that pretext, I pitched this project to my editors. They kicked it to the mag, but still – an excuse is an excuse. My scheme afoot, I asked the librarians at each collection to select a favorite or most under-appreciated piece from their stores. This was a convenient way to avoid having to do any research or curatorial work of my own; instead, I could profit from the knowledge and expertise of others. In essence, I had created for myself a private tour of the Harvard libraries.
But as soon as I started reporting the “piece,” I learned that my strategizing was unnecessary. Each librarian I talked to was delighted to show off their collection. Each emphasized their availability to all Harvard affiliates and often to the general public, not only for help with research on specific topics but also simply to show off the kinds of works I was seeing for their own sake. Another thing I learned — because I heard it at every collection — is that asking a librarian to pick a favorite piece is like asking a parent to pick a favorite child. Often, rather than choosing one, they presented me with several options. Because of the (admittedly self-imposed) rules governing this essay, I made them pick a single one. But that means that there are many more strange and wonderful items still buried in the stacks than I could present here. I would encourage anyone who can to go to the libraries in person at some point and ask to see them.
Which brings up one final note: I realize it might seem strange to publish this piece about the Harvard libraries, for which I did the interviewing in the Before Times, now that in-person encounters like the ones described here belong to the past and (we hope) near future. Libraries must be far from most people’s minds at the moment. In another sense, though, I’d like to suggest that this is a perfect moment to explore their hidden treasures. Libraries have documented a continuously and unpredictably changing world for centuries. They have been constant sources of knowledge, beauty, and historical continuity across moments of crisis and rupture. So, until you can visit them in person, please accept this virtual tour of some treasures from the Harvard libraries; and from the past, take some enjoyment for the present and some hope for the future.
Harvard-Yenching Library: Ehon Don Kihote, Serizawa Keisuke, 1936.
Presented by Kuniko Yamada McVey
Kuniko Yamada McVey, librarian for the Japanese collection at the Harvard-Yenching Library, chose to present a picture-book version of Don Quixote created in Japan by the prominent Japanese artisan Keisuke Serizawa in 1936. Serizawa’s illustration style was based on traditional Japanese techniques – creating stencils for his images and then coloring them in free-hand. In this typically modern work, integrating old techniques and stories from around the globe with new methods and themes, it seems fitting that “Don Kihote” jousts with water wheels instead of with windmills.
The history of the work itself is also uniquely cross-cultural. In the 1930s, the curator of oriental art at the Fogg museum invited Yanagi Soetsu, the father of the Japanese arts and crafts movement, to a conference at Harvard. There, he met a wealthy collector of Don Quixote works who asked him to commision a Japanese arts-and-crafts Don Quixote. Back in Japan, Soetsu found Serizawa through a mutual acquaintance and commissioned the work. This history is part of the reason why Yamada McVey chose to feature the piece – “because of this special connection to Harvard,” she said. “Without these interesting interactions of people at that time, 1929, this wouldn’'t happen. So this is a very special result of a nice human touch.”
Fung Library: Soviet model airplane
Presented by Svetlana Rukhelman
Svetlana Rukhelman, the librarian for the Davis Center Collection at the Fung Library, presented a Soviet model airplane of the Tupolev Tu-144, a supersonic jet designed to compete with the Franco-British Concorde. “The most fascinating thing about this plane is that it’s the embodiment of the Cold War and the focus of a less well-known but equally fascinating space race,” Rukhelman said. From the registration number printed on the plane’s side, SSSR-68001, we can tell that this is a model of the first working prototype of the plane. Its real-world counterpart was destroyed in 1985; all Tupolev Tu-144s were decommissioned in 1999.
The model came into the library’s collections when it was donated in the 2018 by Soviet literature scholar John Garrard, who had found it while doing research in the Soviet Union. Rukhelman said that even aside from the history of the plane it models, the history of the model itself tells a complex story of the Cold War era. “It's a great testament to both the tensions between East and West that define the Cold War era and also the moments of cooperation as when someone from the USSR was able to give these to the American scholar who was eventually able to pass them on to a library in the US.”
Loeb Music Library: “William Tell” manuscript
Presented by Sandi-Jo Malmon
Sandi-Jo Malmon, the librarian for collection development at the Loeb Music Library, presented one of Gioachino Rossini’s original manuscripts of one of his most enduring operas, “William Tell.” Strangely, the manuscript is missing the most famous part of this opera: the overture, familiar from its ubiquitous borrowings, for example the opening theme of the Lone Ranger and in the 1948 Looney Tunes classic, “Bugs Bunny Rides Again.”
Malmon said the missing overture was one of the principal reasons why the library acquired the document. “We thought it was interesting because the overture was missing, actually,” she said. “Often all you get is the overture. That’s what you see all the time. So we thought this was fascinating.” The manuscript’s history before it arrived at Harvard is also striking: From the nameplate inside the cover, we can tell it belonged at one point to the Italian bass virtuoso Domenico C. M. Dragonetti.
Gutman Library: “The Freedman’s Spelling Book” and “Friends in the City”
Presented by Carla Lillvik
Carla Lillvik, a special collections and research librarian at the Gutman Library, chose to present two works from her collections in dialogue. The first, “The Freedman’s Spelling Book,” was a reading manual designed in Boston in 1865 to be sent to the south to teach formerly enslaved people how to read and write. “This is a representation of when people were freed and were allowed to read in the south and efforts to teach them to read,” Lillvik said. In addition to teaching spelling, the book tried to transmit lessons about evangelical Christian morality. “This is an evangelical society trying to teach values and at the same time trying to teach reading,” she said. “You have people from the outside of a community designing a textbook to be sent to a community without real knowledge of that community, with certain goals in mind.”
The second book, “Friends in the City,” is a childrens’ reader published by the Detroit City Schools district in 1966 for its own students. “The idea was for children to see themselves in the readers,” Lillvik said. “You have people from a community designing a textbook for their own community, with understanding who their community is.” In this reader, the example sentences deliberately feature children and families from the large variety of different backgrounds that made up the school district. By putting the two readers in dialogue, Lillvik said, she sees “a wonderful, amazing, complex journey.”
Harvard Fine Arts Library: “Memory and Landscape: Unveiling the Historic Truths of Chile, 1973 to 1990.”
Presented by Jessica Evans Brady
Jessica Evans Brady, research collections librarian at the Harvard Fine Arts Library, presented an art book entitled “Memory and Landscape: Unveiling the Historic Truths of Chile, 1973 to 1990.” The book was created by María Verónica San Martín, a Chilean artist currently living and working in New York. It documents some of the human rights abuses and terrors of Chile’s military government under the rule of Augusto Pinochet. It’s an example of how San Martín conceives of the “the artist’s book as a memory site,” Evans Brady said.
The first part of the book is a chronology of events under the Pinochet regime and has a list of people who disappeared or were executed during that time. For the second part, San Martín included illustrations of the events and a series of portraits of the disappeared. “She uses a silk screening process with charcoal powder, and it’s really striking how that process is reminiscent of the idea of disappearing,” Evans Brady said. “The image itself sort of seems to be disappearing from the page. It’s visually powerful.”
Andover-Harvard Theological Library: Altarpiece Triptych
Presented by Nell K. Carlson
Nell K. Carlson, the curator of historical collections at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library, presented an altarpiece triptych portraying the Bible story of Veronica’s Veil, in which the image of Jesus’s face remains imprinted on the cloth a woman uses to wipe it. The altarpiece was found in the 17th century in Germany on the battlefield of the second battle of Breitenfeld. Because the prayer known as the Lord’s Supper is written on the altarpiece in Latin, Carlson said she and her colleagues think it was used to give Catholic mass on the battlefield.
The altarpiece is interesting to Carlson in large part because of how much of its story is unknown. After being found on the battlefield, it came into the possession of a Catholic chaplain, then a Swedish supply master, then a Protestant chaplain, and then finally ended up in a church in Dahlewitz, Germany. “And from then to now we have no idea what happened to it and how it got here, or even who donated it,” Carlson said. An anonymous “friend of the library” lent it to the Divinity School Dean’s office in 1991. “This is what we call a research opportunity,” Carlson said. “We hope that once people see it, the little tidbits that we do have are enough to pique interest and to have further examination of the actual piece.”
Frances Loeb Library: Original Drawing of Sillon BKF Chair
Presented by Ines Zalduendo
Ines Zalduendo, the special collections archivist at the Frances Loeb Library, presented the only known drawing of the Sillon BKF (sometimes known in English as the Butterfly Chair), the chair that became one of the 20th century’s most recognizable design icons. “I like to show this because it’s sort of paradigmatic of the modern object,” Zalduendo said. “Everyone can recognize it; on the other hand, nobody knows who designed it, where it was designed, or when it was designed.”
The Argentinian designers Antonio Bonet, Juan Kurchan, and Jorge Ferrari Hardoy designed the Sillon BKF in 1939 in Argentina. It consists of two simple parts: a continuous metal rod for the frame, sketched in green in the drawing, and a leather sling for the seat. The designers hired a saddle designer to make the prototype of the sling – a decision which, in Argentina, “makes a lot of sense,” Zalduendo said. “It’s a very local design that later gets reproduced and distributed throughout the world.” Zalduendo said Urban Outfitters recently produced the latest iteration of the chair. This drawing shows the very beginning — a “magical moment,” Zalduendo said. “This is showing that first moment of preliminary understanding of what the chair was going to look like.”
Baker Library: Ansel Adams Photographs
Presented by Jennifer Quick
Jennifer Quick, a research curator for the special collections at the Baker Library, presented photographs taken by Ansel Adams as part of his consulting work for Polaroid. Adams worked with Polaroid for 36 years, testing camera and film prototypes. The Baker Library acquired these photos as part of the Polaroid Corporate Archives.
Adams took the self-portrait in color in the 1970s. Quick said this picture stands out among Adams’s work. “This was an interesting project for him because he wasn’t a color photographer and he never worked in color,” she said. The photo of the dancing doll dates from the 1950s, when Adams was experimenting with black and white film. “He was looking at how well it registered subtle grays, blacks, whites,” Quick said. “That was really important to him. He was well known as a black and white photographer who cared a lot about print quality.” Adams jokingly framed the photo as a Valentine’s Day card to a researcher at Polaroid, Meroe Morse.
Harvard Law School Library: Copy of the Magna Carta, 1298
Presented by Karen Beck
Karen Beck, the manager for historical and special collections at the Harvard Law School Library, presented a copy of the Magna Carta from 1298. The Magna Carta is a landmark document in the history of Western constitutionalism; it established the authority of the law over all English people, including the King, and the rights to justice and fair trial.
This copy is an abridged version, written in English rather than in Latin. It was owned by a town’s head law-enforcement figure, the sheriff. “It’s designed to be taken into the town square so the sheriff could read it aloud four times a year so people would know their rights,” Beck said. One of this version’s particularities is that it shows signs of use: creases from being rolled and unrolled, and marks from the inclement English weather. For that reason, Beck said, it stands out among the library’s other copies of the Magna Carta. “This one I love in particular, because it is so humble in a way,” she said. “You could see how a lawyer used it or see how the sheriff took it out in the rain. That’s why this one is particularly meaningful.”
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics: Notebooks by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot
Presented by Daina Bouqin
Daina Bouquin, the head librarian at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, presented a set of notebooks by the French astronomer Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. The notebooks were discovered by accident during an ongoing project to digitize the notebooks of women astronomers who were at Harvard during the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. Bouquin said that Trouvelot was a man of many interests: He was also an amateur entomologist and introduced gypsy moths to America. “So he’s the person we can thank for the gypsy moth infestation, which is pretty fun. But more importantly, probably in this context, is that he was a pretty brilliant astronomer.”
That brilliance is manifest in his vivid sketches of astronomical objects and phenomena like solar flares, moons, planets, comets, and sunspots. Bouquin said the sketches serve as a valuable reminder both that the process of scientific observation involves interpretation and that aesthetic interpretation is of scientific value. “Sometimes the more you look, it’s really an artist’s interpretation of what’s going on. That’s not to say it’s not true. It’s absolutely true,” she said. “The stuff that people are doing now with our modern telescopes, that’s science. But in 150 years, it’s going to be the equivalent of this. I don’t think people remember that often enough,” she added.
Correction: May 12, 2020
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Svetlana Rukhelman is a library and special collections assistant. In fact, she is a librarian.
Correction: May 12, 2020
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that John Garrard donated a Soviet model airplane in the 1970s. In fact, he acquired the airplane in the 1970s and donated it in 2018.
Correction: May 23, 2020
A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted Jessica Evans Brady as discussing "“the artist’s book as a memory fight." In fact, she discussed “the artist’s book as a memory site."
— Staff writer Oliver L. Riskin-Kutz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @OLRiskinKutz