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Research and Teaching

Making Connections in Widener Library

Michael McCormick


A professor's perspective on Widener Library inevitably centers on research and teaching, and on making connections: connections in research, connections in teaching, connections between research and teaching. To stand in Widener Library is to stand in one of the great achievements of civilization. To be a scholar and to stand in this place is an almost ineffable experience. I think it is the greatest research library in human history. This is the one place in the world where you can see almost any book that matters--any book, that is, any unit of knowledge, devised by man and preserved by man--usually within a matter of minutes, if not seconds.

A very few other libraries are bigger. No bigger library is open stack, allowing you to see the book you need as fast as your legs can carry you there. And no other library in the world has been built with greater care. The Widener complex and the Harvard Depository alone hold some 5 million volumes. Reinforced by the other libraries in the Harvard system, the overall total comes to some 12 million books. And this takes no account of the millions of miscellaneous items in microforms, manuscripts and, increasingly, electronic format. But even these amazing numbers do not measure the surpassing excellence of this collection. For they are the best selected millions of volumes even the greatest scholar could imagine.

Each book in this place is precious, not for its cover, its rarity, its illustrations--though they are sometimes precious for these reasons too--but because of the care with which it has been chosen. For the last 150 years at least, generation upon generation of librarians, scholars, and benefactors have worked long hours gathering the resources, ransacking the bibliographies and sifting the booksellers' catalogues to make this achievement possible. They often had no precise research plan in mind: how could they know what exactly I would need three generations after they have passed on to another world? How could they know exactly which titles my successor will need? And my successor's successor? I do not know where the joys of the scholarly chase or the stimulus of international academic competition will take my research next week. My students do not know what they will need for the discoveries of tomorrow. But we all know that we can find it in this place. Wisely, the modest men and women on whose shoulders we stand did not even attempt to determine my research for me: they simply bought as much and as wisely as they could, investing the evanescent wealth of their resources and their wisdom in the permanent wealth of this extraordinary library. They worked very, very hard. I bless them every day, every time I open an unexpected treasure and find the benefactor's bookplate, the librarian's cataloguing annotations.

Let me illustrate just how remarkable this library is with my own research experience over a seven-day stretch last March. I'm now working on the rise of early European commerce and patterns of communication in the Mediterranean basin in the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman empire. Some preliminary evidence has breathed new life into an old and abandoned hunch that trade with the Arab world was one key element in the first take-off of early medieval commerce. All of a sudden, I had a driving need to discover traces of commerce with the Middle East in the most obscure period of European history, the eighth and ninth centuries, when documents are few and far between. What survives from this trade? Not the spices, not the slaves, not the lumber that was traded. One of the few enduring traces of this nascent commerce are the sturdy silver and gold coins early traders of Italy and France brought home when they had sold their wares in the markets of Egypt and Africa.

I reasoned that if I could find records of Arab coins from the eighth and ninth centuries that had been discovered in Europe, if I could determine exactly where they had been found, I could use that information to trace the routes of this trade, which the written sources leave invisible. I soon discovered that Arab coins have indeed come to light in western Europe from this period. Forty years ago a French scholar had valiantly attempted a similar investigation with all the resources of the Bibliothèque Nationale at his disposition. Valuable though his account was for getting started, some of the references were cryptic, others, exceedingly rare. Had I been forced to spend weeks of trial and error--and much money--tracking down his references, even with the help of the finest interlibrary loan service, I would surely have abandoned the idea within minutes. The risks would have been too high, the cost in time, my most precious commodity, too great. And in how many other places could I have hoped to teach myself in a few days the rudiments of an entirely new discipline--numismatics, and indeed, the study of early medieval Arabic numismatics at that? For I had to figure out how to locate the older finds that had been better published since, or those that had been missed. And of course important new discoveries of coins had been made in the meantime. In fact, even as I write the new European hobby horse of metal detectors is producing a second explosion in ancient coin finds.

The first explosion of discoveries had come in the nineteenth century. Many Arab coins of the eighth and ninth centuries had turned up as Europe catapulted into the industrial age, developing, building everywhere. The new railroads with their gradings, their bridges and tunnels disturbed soil and rocks deep along ancient and modern communication routes. Most of the discoveries were announced, then forgotten. Not a few of the coins themselves have long since disappeared.

And so I set out on a remarkable chase, a chase that could have been accomplished in so little time in no other place in the world. In addition to all the latest scholarly materials--recent volumes of the various British, Belgian, French, Dutch, and Italian numismatic reviews, the excavations at Venice published in 1977 by the Polish Academy of Sciences, and comprehensive and up-to-date analyses of what is known about early Arab coinage in all the languages of the western world, I needed:

* volume 11 of a history of the churches of Venice, published in 1749,

* the second volume of the Bulletin of the Imperial Academy of Science of St. Petersburg published in 1837,

* a literary and technical magazine published in French at Geneva in 1840,

designed to apprise the Continent of the latest advances of British thought,

* the report of the Agrarian, Scientific and Literary Society of the Eastern Pyrenees for 1854,

* the Newsletter of a local museum intended for the German-speaking cultivated public of the Kraina region of ex-Yugoslavia, which existed for only a few years at the turn of the century,

and so on and so on.

A few minutes spent at my computer told me what I desperately needed to know: they were all here. Turning from the electronic path to knowledge toward the dusty paper on which knowledge itself was printed and illustrated, I gathered all these books up in the decaying Widener study I am privileged to share with my distinguished colleague and tolerant friend, Herbert Bloch, Pope Professor of the Latin Language and Literature emeritus. Spreading them out on our common desk, I compared what they had to say, and plotted the new evidence over time and space. Suddenly patterns of stunning clarity emerged. I can now practically predict where in the Islamic world between Morocco and Afghanistan a coin was minted if I know its date and where exactly it was found, that is, where a traveller dropped or hid it 1200 years ago. The trade routes linking together the various regions of Europe, Asia, and Africa in the depths of what used to be called the Dark Ages suddenly loomed forth out of centuries of oblivion.

No single librarian, no single benefaction assembled this diverse array of books. No one ever imagined that these books would be connected in this way. They had come, in bits and pieces in different circumstances. In fact, a recent conversation with a learned librarian revealed the extraordinarily diverse men, women, and funds that had made possible this small part of one scholar's week's work in Widener. How these few books came to be on the shelves when I needed them between classes and committee meetings breathes life into abstractions like "generation upon generation of librarians and benefactors." The following details come from the research of librarian Kenneth Carpenter (see Appendix Two).

The oldest work on my list, the book on Venetian churches, was acquired over a century ago. It was snapped up on the used-book market, a century and a half after publication, with funds from a legacy left by Charles Minot of the class of 1828, a name that I have frequently met when scouring the resources of Widener. The Bulletin of the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg was a gift. The Czar's Academy had itself sent us the complete run of its journals a few years after the Civil War, perhaps not coincidentally shortly after Lincoln and the Czar had worked together in order to counterbalance British threats of intervention, and not two years after Seward's Folly. Whether obtained by librarian John Langdon Sibley's well-timed plea or through an exchange of Harvard publications with the Academy, these journals have been serving Harvard scholars of various interests since February 1869.

The entire run of the Geneva magazine was acquired in the first year of the Civil War with a subscription paid for by a gift of William Gray (class of 1829). When Gray's funding of the subscription ran out, other funds came into play to keep new issues coming in. They stemmed from graduates and officers of the university from 1817 to 1909 and, in noteworthy fact, between 1887 and 1909, from the fund established by E. Price Greenleaf, who, like John Harvard, was not an alumnus.

The volume from the Eastern Pyrenees, along with all issues then in print, was acquired in 1912 when, thanks to a gift of Mrs. Francis C. Lowell in memory of her husband, Judge Francis C. Lowell, the library began a subscription to the Bulletin of this local learned society. And it is a particular pleasure to note that the Kraina journal was a gift in 1912 of an earlier professor of history, Archibald Cary Coolidge, whose directorship of the library marked a decisive step in the history of this extraordinary collection.

When I selected these titles to illustrate my own research in Widener Library, I did not do so with an eye to their origins. But these few examples make abundantly clear the extraordinary efforts--sustained over nearly two centuries--that placed in Widener the books I consulted that week. My emphasis on older bibliographical rarities underscored the exceptional far-sightedness of the nineteenth-century benefactors and librarians. They assembled the resources and then made such astute use of them, matching subscriptions with extensive back-ordering, combining exchange with purchase. Were we to repeat this investigation for the dozens of other volumes I examined in that week, books that ranged in date from the mid-nineteenth century to 1995, the pattern would be the same, but the names different. Routine subscriptions maintained across the Great Depression, devaluations, two World Wars, smaller wars, and the collapse of empires, are anything but routine. That the library succeeded in acquiring all volumes of so many journals is a tribute to the generations of benefactors and librarians who created this assembly of learning, whether their contribution dates from the 1890s, the 1990s, or any other period.

However they reached this shrine of scholarship, these books were all here, that week of 1995, waiting for someone to make the connection. And that is what this extraordinary achievement of American civilization makes possible many times a day; for within its venerable walls stand millions upon millions of pieces of knowledge, awaiting only the flash of insight or the stroke of luck of the teacher, the student, the visiting scholar, or the assiduous amateur to bring them together and create new knowledge. So long as we can equal the challenge of our predecessors who funded, built, and used this collection, in this building, in this seamless web of books and wires, there is only one limit on every boy or girl, every man or woman who enters and works. That limit is the power of their imagination to make connections.

If I have continued so long about research before making the connection with teaching, that is because such is the way it truly is. Hours, weeks, years of research, writing, thinking are the price that must be paid for the best teaching. For it is these years of labor that are distilled into the making of every moment of teaching, from selecting the topics to delivering the lectures. We are drawn, all of us, to this marvelous university and to its heart, the library, I think, because the best research is fired by the best teaching, and vice versa. We are certainly not drawn by the imposing teaching and administrative load, which is the lot of senior professors in this university. Right now I am giving a new undergraduate course in the Core program, about Charlemagne and the origins of Europe. When I set out on my search for Arab coins, I had already written the lecture on the Carolingians and the Arabs the previous summer. Now I was forced to redo it because of what I found in one privileged week inside Widener. The 110 students who heard the resulting lecture can attest whether the connection was made between research and teaching.

But it is not even in the lectures that we see with crystalline clarity the connection between teaching and research. That moment comes at the end of even the largest lecture course, when the students have the floor, when they can ask the professor the questions in their minds. There is no audience more difficult, more demanding, or more rewarding than a room full of Harvard undergraduates. They know enough to ask good, tough, questions, but are innocent enough not to shun the ones that frighten the field. They are surprised when I tell them, as I routinely must, that no one has ever asked that question. Not only has the question not been raised in my course, nor in this university, but nowhere, so far as I know, in the published scientific literature in any language. That is the moment when the professor shifts gears, from virtuoso but disciplined performer of a Mozart sonata to pure improvisation. For each question, it is the total of a life of research that supplies the answer, the context, the explanation--the connection. This university and this extraordinary library is all about connections: connections between teachers and students, connections between students and books, connections among books, teachers and students.

Appendix One

A few of the unusual works consulted in March 1995 in connection with early medieval Arab coin finds in Europe, located and consulted within minutes on Widener Library's shelves:

Flaminius Cornaro, Ecclesiae venetae antiquis monumentis nunc etiam primum editis illustratae, vol. 11 (Venice, 1749), 64­66.

C. M. Fraehn, "Erklärung der im J. 1830 bei Steckborn im Thurgau ausgegrabenen Münzen," Bulletin scientifique publié par l'Académie impériale des sciences de Saint­Pétersbourg 2 (1837): 326­34.

A. Colson, "Recherches sur les monnaies qui ont eu cours en Roussillon," Société agricole, scientifique et littéraire des Pyrénées­Orientales 9 (Perpignan, 1854): 29­260

F. Soret, "Lettre à M. le Professeur Humbert sur quelques monnaies des Califes; en particulier sur celles qu'on a trouvées à Steckborn en Thurgovie," Bibliothèque universelle de Genève n.s. 28 (1840): 5­18.

A. Müllner, "Fund von Abbassiden-Münzen bei Frasslau," Argo: Zeitschrift für krainische Landeskunde 3 (1894): 98­99.

Appendix Two: How Widener acquired these titles

Kenneth E. Carpenter

Flaminio Cornaro, Ecclesiae venetae antiquis monumentis nunc etiam primum editis illustratae ac in decades distributae (Venetiis, 1749), 13 v. (Ital 4838.1.6), was received on 16 May 1881, paid for with income from the Minot Fund, a legacy, received in 1870, of Charles Minot of the class of 1828, for the "purchase of new books." The librarian at the time was Justin Winsor, class of 1853, who was then president of the newly formed (1876) American Library Association.

The Bulletin scientifique publié par l'Académie des sciences de Saint Pétersbourg (LSoc 3983.35), which contains Ch. M. Fraehn, "Erklärung der im J. 1830 bei Steckborn im Thurgau ausgegrabenen Münzen," was received, along with 107 other volumes and 22 pamphlets, on 20 February 1869 from the Academy. These probably came as a result of a begging letter, for the librarian at the time, John Langdon Sibley, class of 1825, was known as a "sturdy beggar." There might, however, have been an exchange, there being some scientific publications of parts of the University that the library apparently used for this purpose.

All volumes published up to then of the Bulletin of the Société agricole, scientifique et littéraire des Pyrénées-orientales (Fr 42.9) were acquired on 14 November 1912, with the Francis Cabot Lowell Fund, a gift from Mrs. Francis C. Lowell in memory of her husband, Judge Francis Cabot Lowell of the class of 1876. Lowell was a Fellow of Harvard College from 1895 to 1911. The fund was to supplement his collection of Joan of Arc, which he had given to the library, or to purchase books of historical value on countries and periods more or less closely related to Joan of Arc. After receipt of all volumes hitherto published, the library then entered a subscription, and vols. 53 and 54, covering 1913 and the first part of 1914, were received in those years respectively. After another part dated 1914, publication ceased during the war, and the library's subscription did not resume. Instead, in 1962, the library acquired vols. 55­60, thus making the file complete.

Argo. Zeitschrift für krainische Landeskunde, v. 3, 1894 (Slav 8461.105F) was part of the Hohenzollern Collection, which was the gift of Archibald Cary Coolidge, class of 1887. Received 12 January 1912, it was the gift of a history professor who was at the time Director of the Library.

The Bibliothèque universelle de Genève n.s. 28 (1840) (PFr 129.1.2) is a continuation of the Bibliothèque britannique. It is a most important periodical in that through it British agricultural techniques as well as British economic and social thought reached the Continent in French translation. That first series, plus the new series, was received on 22 November 1861, purchased with the gift of William Gray of the class of 1829. Gray, in 1859, promised $5,000 per year for five years, with the wish that "the latest works be preferred to those of earlier date." Not only did his gift increase sixfold the available funds, its terms show that the need for a library to keep up with current publications had been heard. (That message was conveyed in an earlier report on the library by a committee of alumni.)

When Gray's money ran out, the library continued the subscription with the bequest of Thomas Wren Ward, who was not a Harvard graduate but was treasurer of Harvard College from 1830 to 1842. When that money ran out, the subscription was paid for by the Sever Fund, the bequest in 1878, of Anne E. P. Sever, widow of James Warren Sever of the class of 1817. The E. Price Greenleaf fund, a legacy of more than $700,000 received in 1887 from a resident of Quincy who was not a Harvard graduate, subsequently paid for the serial, which later was carried by the fund established in 1909 by George Francis Parkman of the class of 1844.

The periodical had several different series, not just one after another, but some overlapping. Thus, a fourth series, 1846­1858, was received on 7 August 1893. It was paid for by the Minot Fund. Another series, Archives des sciences physiques et naturelles, was paid for by the Peter Paul Francis Degrand Fund, a legacy of more than $82,000 from a non-Harvard graduate received in 1917 for "French works and periodicals on the exact sciences."


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Michael McCormick is professor of history.

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