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Faculty Member Awarded Grant to Transcribe Archives Collection

Notes on over 40 years of life at Harvard will be fully searchable online.

digitized images of 1870 and 1918 entries

August 26, 2014—Old habits may die hard, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. David Gordon Lyon, founder of Harvard’s Semitic Museum, Hollis Professor of Divinity and Hancock Professor of Hebrew and other Oriental Languages began keeping a diary in 1870 as an undergraduate and continued throughout the rest of his life. The 38 notebooks Lyon filled capture world events and 40 years of life at Harvard through a unique and personal lens.

This rich record, held by the Harvard University Archives, will be soon be more accessible to researchers thanks to a grant to transcribe them from the Lasky/Barajas Dean’s Innovation Fund for Digital and Humanities. The grant was to Professor Peter Der Manuelian, director of the Harvard Semitic Museum, by Faculty of Arts & Sciences Curriculum Services.

Lyon’s brief, daily entries document his lectures, research and activities at Harvard as well as his prayers. In 1912, Lyon jotted down a reminder to write a note of condolence to the family of a victim of the Titanic disaster. In 1918, he chronicled local reaction to the end of World War I; Lyon celebrated by going “to the movies,” possibly newsreels.

Ephemerae were tucked in the pages—tickets, invoices and colorful birthday cards and Valentines from his wife. “He used them kind of like wallets,” explained Robin McElheny, associate university archivist for collections and public services.

Manuelian—who first read the diaries in 2003 while researching a biography of George Reisner (1867-1942), his predecessor at the Semitic Museum and one of Lyon’s students—instantly recognized the diaries’ value, and his appreciation of them only increased with time.

“Lyon was keeping records on a number of levels,” said Manuelian. “All of this was seen as a mix of personal and professional information. Through that we learn everything—about the Harvard Semitic Museum, University salaries, world travel, moving from house to house in Cambridge, great political events and meetings with Presidents Eliot and Lowell.”

With funding from the HCL Collections Digitization Program’s Digitization for Teaching and Learning Program, the Archives digitized Lyon’s diaries in 2014, which made them accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. The transcriptions will enhance their use not only by improving legibility but also by making them searchable.

Manuelian hopes his work with and advocacy for making the diaries more accessible will increase their use and value, for instruction as well as research.

“Teaching with objects is such a hot and relevant topic today,” he said. “There is no end to the number of courses that could benefit from Lyon’s descriptions of life on campus, of his travels through the Middle East at the turn of the last century, early museum display practices, interactions with Harvard presidents and international colleagues and the process of acquiring both ancient works of art and plaster casts for teaching.”

The transcriptions will be available in the Semitic Museum’s online collection’s management system.

The Harvard Semitic Museum is curating an exhibit, “From the Nile to the Euphrates: David Gordon Lyon and the Creation of the Harvard Semitic Museum,” featuring Lyon, the diaries and the collections. The exhibit opens on December 5, with an introductory lecture on December 4.