Curiouser and Curiouser!

Portrait of Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow
President Lawrence S. Bacow

Such is Alice’s outburst in Wonderland upon finding herself enlarged beyond imagination. It’s an experience not unlike the one I wish for our incoming students each fall, the sudden and strange feeling of reaching unimaginable heights and gaining new perspective. Yet I also wish for them humbling moments of awe at the scope of ambition and talent that exists across the University. This, I believe, is the promise that being part of the Harvard community holds for us all—to be both grand and humble as we make our way through ever-changing landscapes. 

My annual aspiration—and the outsized literary figure who inspired it—is expressed beautifully in Solomon Gate. Designed to be open and completed last year, it welcomes passers-by on Quincy Street to linger and admire its playful design, which includes references to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or to venture into Harvard Yard within sight of the recently renewed Houghton Library. Both the gate and the renovations were supported by a major gift from Peter J. Solomon ’60, MBA ’63, and his wife, Susan, whose love of children’s literature and illustrations is exceeded only by their commitment to making rare and treasured resources available to as many people as possible. 

The collections of Houghton Library offer a breathtaking record of human achievement that exists nowhere else in the world. Items span antiquity to the contemporary—from Homer’s verse rendered on papyrus to Emily Dickinson’s poetry copied into hand-sewn fascicles to Jamaica Kincaid’s prose saved on a hard drive—and a moment online will put too many outstanding items to mention at your fingertips, though nothing beats marveling at the things themselves. Thousands of researchers, more than half of them from outside the University, visit Houghton’s renowned reading room annually to pore over rare books and manuscripts, archival material, and other specialized holdings. Last year, 185 class sessions brought thousands of Harvard students into contact with materials that enriched their learning not just in the humanities but also in the physical and social sciences. 

Houghton Library is, of course, just one bright star in the constellation that is Harvard Library. Ours is the nation’s oldest library system, established just two years after our institution was founded, and the world’s largest academic library. Across our more than 25 libraries and archives, we hold more than 20 million physical and digital items. Acquired, described, and preserved for our time—and times to come—they are being shared widely to increase access to reliable and trustworthy sources. Any researcher, regardless of affiliation, may use our special collections in person or search them online, and more than six million items have been digitized and made available for free to anyone with an internet connection. The care, endurance, and foresight that have converged over centuries to distinguish our University are truly embodied by Harvard Library.

Our extraordinary resources, staggering in their number and diversity, are a boon to scholars around the globe. Yet our resources would mean far less without the highly skilled individuals whose guidance and support make work of all kinds better than it would be otherwise. This fact was never more keenly appreciated than during the height of the pandemic, when services taken for granted were suddenly curtailed or reduced. With extraordinary ingenuity and determination, the staff of Harvard Library found ways to thrive. Time-tested methods such as book pick up, interlibrary loan, and scan and deliver, as well as a new book-mailing service, kicked into high gear. Online content and research help were expanded, and digital and virtual innovations brought archival material and special collections into reach regardless of distance. And, when nothing else but hands-on would do, hours were spent in-house to ensure continuity.

The beginning of each academic year always seems to me the launch of thousands of boats, each captained by a single student new to the University. Those who find their way to our libraries and archives, whether in person or online, discover places of imagination and revelation, and encounters that stir the heart and soul as much as they do the mind. When sailing on the sea, whether Alice’s pool of tears or Harvard’s unfathomable expanses, one can always look to the stars for direction.

Lawrence S. Bacow

Read more articles by Lawrence Bacow
Sub topics

You might also like

“Edifying and Beautiful”

Botanical illustrations on display at Harvard’s rare book library

Sarah Ganz Blythe New Art Museums Director

Assumes Harvard post in August

Taking Climate Action at Harvard

Focusing on prime polluting industries, plus politics and policy

Most popular

Crimson En Garde

Eight Olympics-bound Harvard fencers

Taking Climate Action at Harvard

Focusing on prime polluting industries, plus politics and policy

“Edifying and Beautiful”

Botanical illustrations on display at Harvard’s rare book library

More to explore

Architect Kimberly Dowell is Changing Her Profession

Kimberly Dowdell influences her profession—and the built environment.

Harvard Professor on Printmaking

An art historian analyzes an overlooked medium.

Dream Renovations to Harvard Yard Libraries

An ambitious plan for the next century of learning