J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, November 18, 2011

Harvard Preoccupied

Yesterday I went to Harvard’s Houghton Library to look at an entry in the journals of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. To be precise, I went to see if the poet’s brother had transcribed one word correctly when he published those journals.

I’ve researched at Houghton before [starting when I was about ten—long story], but not for a few years, so I needed a Special Collections card from the Library Privileges Office.

The only problem was that Harvard Yard is closed to outsiders, the university administration’s response to the small “Occupy Harvard” movement. A person needs a Harvard identification card to get into the Yard, even if he’s there to pick up a Harvard identification card.

I phoned ahead to the Library Privileges Office to ask how they’re handling that paradox. A friendly fellow told me to tell the police officers at the gate that I wanted to go to the Library Privileges Office in the Widener building. Depending on the individual officer’s priorities, he or she would either send me on to the office or escort me there.

Unfortunately, word of that arrangement hadn’t reached all the officers. In fact, I found that only one person per gate was aware of it. And the only gate where it’s supposed to apply is the Widener Gate. After multiple inquiries, an officer told me to go straight into the back door of Widener and speak to the security guard. The security guard then told me to go straight out of the building again and around to its front.

But by then, you see, I’d broached the special police line. I could go anywhere in the Yard. But all I wanted was my card, and I still had the regular library security process to navigate. I went up the big steps, filled out the form, sat for the photo, got my card, and headed to Houghton.

So it’s possible for outsiders to visit the university for research—it may just take more polite persistence than usual. My particular experience yesterday might have been shaped by the cold rain, making the police officers reluctant to leave the awnings set up for their protection to escort me anywhere. On the other hand, I probably earned some brownie points by helping the gents at Widener gate hoist their awning up high enough for a van to drive underneath. It’s a weird situation, and everyone’s probably improvising as we go along. (I never saw the protesters.)

As for Longfellow’s journal, his handwriting is ambiguous; brother Sam didn’t make an obvious error. However, from other sources I feel confident that the poet received a visit not from “Mrs. Vassal” but from “Mr. [Darby] Vassal.”


Daud said...

You were researching at Harvard at age 10? I'm not going to ask, but I guess it explains a lot.

Anonymous said...

As an employee of Houghton, I am
glad you finally got in.

J. L. Bell said...

And I was very glad to get in, both yesterday and when I was little and the rules were less strict (probably because the staff had never encountered our particular situation).

A bad day in the archives is better than a good day at the office, and yesterday was a good day at the archives.

John L Smith Jr said...

A non-Harvard-card-holding friend of mine encountered the same campus police situation yesterday while attempting to see Newt's Q&A on campus. (!)