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For the historian of science, the Harvard College Library is a laboratory teeming with a billion facts. These are "facts-in-themselves" waiting to be hammered into "reasoned facts," to borrow Aristotle's terminology. Here is the raw material to build and test historical hypotheses. Indeed, what the observatory is to the astronomer or the tevatron to the particle physicist, Widener is to the historian. For those who believe that salvation is in the details, here are data, mere facts, waiting to be discovered and converted into historical facts.
Central to my own research program is an attempt to understand how the idea of Copernicus's heliocentric theory was received and perceived in the century following its publication in 1543. How many copies of his masterpiece, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, were published, and what became of them? In the absence of any printer's records, we need to make an educated guess about the press run. Widener contains a certain amount of misinformation about this, a wild and unsubstantiated guess of a thousand copies, and some rather good data from the Plantin-Moretus press in Antwerp, where we can see editions ranging from 20 to 2,000 in the sixteenth century.
One way to gauge the number of copies printed would be to list the possible sixteenth-century owners, and then to see what fraction of owners is actually found among the surviving copies. Neither prong of this investigation is trivial, but it happens that over the past two decades I have personally examined nearly every surviving example of Copernicus's first edition, some 260 copies, and also the second edition of 1566, nearly 300 copies. As for the list of sixteenth-century owners, Widener is a great source of information as to who was teaching astronomy, and where, at that time, which enabled me to construct a list of some 70 potential owners. And now comes the salvation of details, the matching of actual owners with potential owners.
Let me give an example of Widener to the rescue. A likely owner was Erasmus Oswald Schreckenfuchs, author of several folio commentaries on classic astronomical texts. In the Bibliothèque Mazarine in Paris I found a first edition Copernicus inscribed by one Johannes Oswald Schreckenfuchs. Who was he? A brother? A cousin? I was baffled until one day I accidentally hit pay dirt in the "Educ" section of Widener's stacks. The Graduate School of Education at Harvard was long a poor relation of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and I suspect many users of Widener walk past the Educ section (for many years just inside the Mass. Avenue door on B level) and wonder what education books are doing there. Actually, this classification is a gold mine for the early history of universities, and it includes many sixteenth-century matriculation lists. One such list is for the University of Basel, and there, under the students who matriculated in 1569/70, was the answer: Erasmus Oswald Schreckenfuchs was simply the nom de plume of Johannes Oswald Schreckenfuchs....
Copernicus's book "was and is an all-time worst seller," declared Arthur Koestler in The Sleepwalkers (London, 1959). Clearly the raw facts from the world's largest university library can be forged into a lucid insight that refutes the best-selling novelist. Detective work in libraries scattered around the globe, but most especially in the Harvard College Library, has shown how very wrong Koestler was.
Of course, if disproving Koestler were the sole game, that could have been done very elegantly and simply from the holdings of Houghton Library. Widener's next-door neighbor has not only two copies of the first edition of De revolutionibus, but the second and third as well. Surely all-time worst sellers never go into subsequent editions. But Houghton's treasury is still more interesting. Particularly rich in early book catalogs, it contains a 1595 publisher's list from Heinrich Petri, the printer of the 1566 edition of Copernicus. Heinrich Petri's brochure shows De revolutionibus still in print, 29 years after he had republished it. Copernicus's book has been crossed out, however, suggesting that the supply had finally run out. If the first edition of 1543 had stayed in print a comparable period, then the second edition was presumably timed to meet an on-going demand for what was already seen as a classic work. By themselves, these are mere facts. In context, they become historical facts. Indeed, historical facts such as these put to lie Koestler's dramatic but rash claim that Copernicus had written "the book nobody read."
I fell in love with Widener 30 years ago. more than one love affair has started with a picture that excites desire; it was true in my case. As a 1960s high-school student, I'd seen, in some College brochure, a photograph of Widener's massy range of columns and, a few pages later, one of students and scholars sitting in curious wooden chairs at long tables, each chair paired, on the center of the table, with a reading lamp. The two pictures created immediate attraction. It was irrational, of course, but set a tone and provided images that I'll never forget. The first time I climbed the wide staircase leading to the Treasure Room, my knees literally shook--I felt afraid and completely uncertain. Now, an older lover, I'm still often uncertain, even quarrelsome at times, but always ready to kiss, make up, and admire--mostly admire. Like all love affairs, mine has had ups and downs, disappointments and moments of sheer pleasure. But the attraction's stronger now than it has ever been....
[I]n May 1991 I located in the British Library a group of manuscript letters written by close relatives of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, primarily by three of his brothers and his father. This collection had never before been cited and apparently had never been read except by his immediate family members and one or two collateral descendants. The letters tell the story of how the family faced the deaths of four of Coleridge's brothers (one, possibly two, were suicides), of his only sister, and of his father--all the siblings were adults--all within a period of nine years, from the time Coleridge was eight until he was 17. Receiving permission from the present Coleridge family, I undertook to edit the letters. From their personal nature, countless references to local events, and often obscure, though interesting, individuals, and from their emphasis, too, on the service of two of Coleridge's brothers in the Indian Army from 1770 through the mid 1780s, I expected that editing and annotating the letters would require extensive research in England. But with a family at home and a three-week excursion fare in my pocket--half of that time being required to copy out the letters longhand--the Student's [manuscript] Room at the British Library forbids wholesale reproduction of manuscripts--I needed to return to the States. And so I began the job here, at Widener. With the exception of one written inquiry to the Devon and Cornwall Record Office in Exeter, two local histories I'd purchased in Coleridge's birthplace, Ottery St. Mary, and one return visit to the British Library to consult a particular list of army officers (Dodwell and Miles), in a happy surprise Widener made it possible to do all the work here, in the reference room and particularly in the open stacks. But, after almost 30 years, why should I be surprised?
Other buildings, equipment, and materials are equally important for other kinds of research and scholarly work. But, while admitting the great cost to reproduce them, and while making an exception for the unique art and artifacts in museums, these other resources are, in fact, far more easily and cheaply replaced than our libraries. Widener and the College libraries are priceless, their contents irreplaceable. At Harvard, aside from the people here, there is nothing worth more--love.
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