My Trip to Harvard

By Colin Woodward

One of the most fun, rewarding, exhausting, expensive, and potentially frustrating aspects of being a historian is the research trip. I think at the Chronicle of Higher Education website there should be a section on research trip experiences. Two weeks ago, I went to Harvard to conduct more research on abolitionists and the burning of Darien, Georgia, in 1863. It was the first time I’ve ever been to the Harvard campus. I hope it won’t be the last.

I’ve had the good fortune to visit a number of special collections libraries over the years, including Chapel Hill; Duke; the Virginia Historical Society; the Museum of the Confederacy; the Library of Virginia; Hill Memorial Library-LSU, Baton Rouge; the Massachusetts Historical Society; the American Antiquarian Society; and now, Harvard University. Compared to many historians, that is a meager list. Nevertheless, every research trip to the archives is an interesting experience. My recent journey to Harvard certainly was.

As anyone who’s been to Boston knows that parking is a nightmare. So, rather than attempt to navigate the winding, cowpath-like streets of Cambridge, I decided to drive to the Alewife lot and take the T to Harvard Station. However, the Alewife station has not been in operation the last two times I’ve gone there. I had to take a bus from to Harvard Station, which added quite a bit to my travel time.

Don’t try to visit Harvard without calling ahead a day or two before. The campus has been on lockdown for a while because of the Occupy Movement. I had to get a letter from the archives to do research at Houghton Library. Further complicating matters, one must get a Harvard ID to enter Houghton, where you are buzzed in and out of the reading room. Thankfully, by calling ahead, the people at Houghton (which opens at 9) allowed me to do research for a few hours before I had to go to the ID office (which opens at 12).

Harvard has, far and away, the tightest security of any archive I have been to. Getting my ID was a lot like going to the DMV. You need to present a government ID, then someone takes your picture and he prints out the card on the spot. This wasn’t especially time-consuming, however.

Harvard University

What was more challenging was that the Harvard Library system is very decentralized. There are dozens of libraries on campus. Widener is the main library, but there are many other libraries and various special collections repositories. Not everything I wanted to look at was in Houghton or Widener. Other items were in the religion library or elsewhere, and I didn’t have access to those places with my ID cards. Other things were listed as being in Widener, but they were held at off-site locations. Libraries are in a perpetual battle against lack of space.

To navigate these libraries in one day is daunting, to say the least. And it made me realize how easy I had it as a graduate student at LSU, where anything I ever needed was either in Middleton Library or Hill Memorial, which were pretty much right outside the history department door.

There’s a lot of history at Harvard. Indeed, at one point, I think I was in a section of the stacks like the ones featured in the movie The Paper Chase, during the scene where Hart and his friend sneak into the library to look at Professor Kingsfield’s notebooks.

Harvard is the product of hundreds of years of growth and development. Just like Boston has a winding, unique layout, so too does the Harvard research libraries. Research is always twisting you in knots, and sometimes your surroundings add to that feeling. Harvard is in sharp contrast to a place like LSU, where the recently built library (by that, I mean, mid-20th century) has all the character of an interstate highway. But, like I-10, it’s designed so that anyone can get in and out quickly. And as a graduate student, you had the run of the place.

After the Houghton Library closed at 5, I walked around Cambridge a little bit. I went to the Harvard bookstore, where there is the legendary Guttenberg book-making machine. I had always thought there’d be some kind of special room for it. But no, it was simply in one corner of the bookstore among the shelves of history and biography sections. The space was cramped, really.

Harvard bookstore, right across the street from Harvard Yard.

Research trips are always fun, and the longer they are, the better.

Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.

About amerikanrambler

Amerikan Rambler is a Virginia-based blog and podcast hosted by Colin Woodward. Colin is a historian, author, and amateur musician, who works in the archives full-time. Author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, he is now writing a book on the historical, family, and musical roots of Johnny Cash.
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