Our Visit to The Houghton Library

On Monday the class met at the Houghton Library at Harvard University for our final library field trip of the semester.  Trying to find the library was a bit challenging, and asking some Harvard students for help revealed that some of them were unfamiliar with the library.  Some students were very unsure of directions to the library even though it was pretty close by.  I must admit that I was a bit surprised by this since it is such an incredible resource!

Once we had all stowed our bags in the lockers, we went into the first room we visited on our tour.  We were surrounded by so many old and rare books in just that one room, it was amazing!  Unfortunately we couldn’t wander around the room to see the exhibit (which featured books selected by Harvard professors that they felt were meaningful) because some materials were set out for a group that was arriving after us.  Still, even from the part of the room we could go in, it became very clear that the library housed a truly amazing collection.

Next we made our way up a (super cool!) spiral staircase into a room that was specifically designed to look like a house in England during Samuel Johnson’s time.   Once we were all gathered in the room, we got to see a selection of the Houghton’s absolutely massive Samuel Johnson collection.  The room not only featured not only Samuel Johnson books, but also portraits of him and his inner circle.  They have the most extensive collection in the world, ranging from his personal set of of Bibles to first editions of his dictionary to his personal letters.  All of these items were collected by a couple who later donated them to the Houghton.  One of the items we looked at was a book that had never been folded, stitched together, or cut, so it remained in a pristine original condition.  It was very interesting to see especially since it was a good chance to see one of the stages of the book making process.  There was also a copy of the plan of the dictionary that was still in its original blue paper cover.

My favorite part of the whole tour came next!  Once we were done in the Samuel Johnson room, we went into the next room over to see the books and letters that were set out for us to look at.  Most of the items related to readings on our syllabus, so there was lots to see!  There was a copy of the Samuel Johnson dictionary (as well as his letters), other dictionaries (including one specifically for “hard words”), a Latin copy of the Philobiblon, a copy of Pale Fire, an 1818 first edition Frankenstein, and a first edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.  My two favorite items were Frankenstein and the book of sonnets.  The Frankenstein books were really neat to see.  The novel was split into three individual volumes like we had discussed in class, and it was kind of wild seeing the title page of Volume 1 since we had done a whole class activity relating to it!  The sonnets were also incredible because apparently there are very few copies of the book known to exist and the one at the Houghton is probably in the best condition of all of them.  It was beautiful and I felt so happy that I got to take a closer look at it (without touching, since it is apparently one of the most rare books in the library).  I did ask to see the page for Sonnet 106, which is my favorite, so I was quite excited about that!!

Our tour of the Houghton Library was very exciting and interesting.  We were reminded several times that this library is not just for Harvard students and that we are free to visit the library again and research the materials there!  There is an online catalog that books can be requested through and if you get a special ID you can work with them in the reading room.  It is great to know that this library is a great resource for us, and it is only a Redline ride away!


10 thoughts on “Our Visit to The Houghton Library

  1. I must say, that my initial impression for the inner library was disappointment;
    but that’s what I get for expecting us to go down several levels library material, book shelves upon book shelves with books of mysteries, age old books ect. It wasn’t until I got home that my grandfather; an alumni from Harvard Divinity school said to me, “Nope. That’s not the Houghton, you were expecting Wydner Library.” Dang it. But upon reflection after speaking with my grandfather, I had to take a step back, I can’t expect to be impressed by a very good library, if I am expecting the Library of Heaven’s door, however, the materials in the collection which we saw were nonetheless impressive, I’d say it was good of me to observe the handwriting, illegible as it may be– since the author I picked for my project was also Longfellow. So, if there is anyone whom wanted to do Johnson, I’d say this is definately a tour you would have wanted to see since the original hand writing can be observed!

    • Yes, the Widener is also a fascinating library, not just for its underground stacks, but also because of its copy of the Gutenberg Bible in the lobby. They keep the Widener locked down, so it’s difficult to get into the inner sanctum.

      As for the Houghton, Hannah, I’m delighted to hear you enjoyed the experience of viewing the Johnson collection and engaging with some of the rare materials addressed in our syllabus. I was especially grateful to Peter for challenging you all with the kinds of questions and connections you might make between rare materials. For example, the draft of the Longfellow poem might reflect some cross-outs, etc. that may give us insight into the plagiarism charge. In general, I hope all of these visits have given you a good sense of what it means to do rare book and archival research.

  2. That’s a great sonnet to be your favourite. I’ve always loved the lines, “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun/Nor the furious winter’s rages” from Cymbeline. Isn’t Shakespeare the best? I think so…I was pretty much in love with the Houghton from the moment we walked through the front doors and that love grew to all of Harvard and its amazing resources. I actually spent the next couple days trying to blend in with all of their graduate students, using their free wifi and drinking the tax-free coffee from their special graduate student café. I also discovered the Schlesinger Library, which is part of the Radcliffe Institute of Harvard. It’s like the Houghton, but specializes in women’s history. It’s pretty neat.

  3. 100% agree on the difficulty in finding the library. I also asked some “students” that were walking around the campus and, to my surprise, found out that 3/5 people were not students but tourists. That as so crazy to me! Of course I am aware that Harvard is a very popular school but to imagine being a student and walking my campus with tourists truly shocked me. After that, whenever I saw someone in Harvard attire I thought, “Hm. Do you really go here or are you a tourist too?” very interesting. Upon leaving I saw a sign that included directions for “visitors”… very odd.

    Like you, the Samuel Johnson collection was my favorite part of the tour too. I loved seeing the texts from our syllabus in the beginning editions. To see the old conditions and originally writings was truly educational. I also enjoyed how we all got to sit down in front of a piece of writing and went around the room to discuss and learn more about it – very informational. I learned so much from this visit!

  4. Great posts! Hannah, thanks for the reminder that a copy of Philobiblon is over there! Like you said: you can go into Wydner, take a left, go to the “privileges” office, and get an ID to go to Houghton’s reading room (after you sign up online)! Kacy, some of their collection is housed off site I think, as well as, downstairs (in what I’m assuming are vaults or something). I had to request my book days in advance, and when I got there I had to wait 10-15 minutes as they retrieved it (this was after I had made a request on their webpage). Regardless, it was worth it! When I was on their webpage looking for a manuscript I stumbled on the papyrii catalogue, which listed a c. 50 B.C.E. reciept for the purchase of a donkey in ancient Greece. Kind of awesome, just saying…

    One question that I didn’t ask that I wish I had was how much of the Johnson collection had been digitized. Luckily, Houghton has a webpage:



  5. The best part about this visit with this library was definitely how unexpected everything was there. I too believed it would be a grand library like the others we have visited, but instead was surprised to find out how small the collection was in comparison to the other places we have visited. I regret sitting in front of the library’s edition of Pale Fire, because even though it had Bishop’s signature in it, it was rather new and unmarked, leaving little to examine beyond the story itself. I really liked how the archivists tailored the experience towards what we have learned in the class, showing us examples of texts we might have encountered in our studies, and even some materials from past courses at the school. The openness of the people working there with their clear excitement and interest in their material definitely helped in enjoying the experience as a whole. Seeing the various stages of the creation of the dictionary was also interesting too.

  6. Hi Hannah,

    Thanks for your entry!
    Like everyone else, I too, was impressed and pleasantly surprised by the Houghton Library’s collection, and their accessibility.
    I will say, the thing that I found most interesting though was that they had books from Johnson’s own collection. Ones ( as Sam had noticed and asked) that played a role in his dictionary. The way that the “W” words were picked out as candidates for what to include was fascinating. I had not thought about where he might have looked for words when I was reading and thinking about what we read for that week. It was wonderful to see/hear about that from the staff of the library.

  7. Great write-up Hannah! Thank you for reminding the class about the Harvard’s library policy regarding outside students! The Houghton library should have plenty of great resources for our final showcase project. I checked out one of our tour guide’s Twitter page. It’s really cool to see the people you meet in real life, then looking at their web presence. Our tour guide’s page has a lot of great book history information.

  8. The trip to the Houghton Library was interesting. The room dedicated to Johnson was much more expansive than I expected it to be, and to sit in another room, examining some of his letters and personal copies of some key novels from the period was a humbling experience. I have to say, I’ve had quite a few of these humbling experiences since this semester began – to see some of these older texts still surviving to this day and being within reach is something else.

    Our tour guides were very interesting fellows, and it was quite enthralling to hear the knowledge they had stored away in their own minds. One of them, and I feel bad for not remembering his name, mentioned that he had never intended to become so consumed by Johnson (much like Dr. Justice with Hemingway) and yet, that was where he found himself. I wonder, will any of us find ourselves becoming an expert on a writer we never planned to?

  9. One of my favorite moments of visiting the Houghton — besides pretending I went to Harvard as I walked through the yard and the nice British student who helped me and Victoria find the library because we were lost and blew our cover in pretending we were students there — was when I thought I was making a discovery in the manuscript I was seated in front of that someone was marking alliteration in the book. Only to find out from our guides that it was actually Johnson’s copy of the book and so these letters he was marking as annotations in the margins were really him recording notes on which words he could incorporate into his dictionary. I thought that was fascinating because it was one of the first times in this class where I really felt like I personally had a hand in discovering an old secret of a book, so pretty cool.

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