Featured Item: Harvard College Library Letters, 1826-1914

As part of her work on a Harvard Library Hidden Collections processing project, archivist Leah Edelman uncovered in the newly available Harvard College Library letters not only Library history, but also --  just in time for Women's History Month --  evidence of the presence of women at an academic institution that did not yet admit them as students. Through correspondence and other Library records, this collection provides a picture of women's working lives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Women began working in the Harvard College Library in 1859, under the direction of Harvard Librarian John Langdon Sibley. During Sibley’s term and that of his successor, Justin Winsor, the Library's holdings grew exponentially and women were employed as copyists and cataloging assistants, keeping records of acquisitions and writing entries for catalogs. Indeed, the implementation of Assistant Librarian Ezra Abbot's innovative public subject-author card catalog was carried out carefully by women, as we learn from a letter Abbot wrote in support of an 1864 petition for higher wages submitted by female assistants.  In 1867, the Harvard Corporation did give female assistants a raise, though a subsequent letter from a woman working in the Library notes that "the fact that women there are not in line of promotion is discouraging, to say the least."

With a job at the Harvard College Library a highly coveted position, the collection also contains an entire volume of letters from young women asking for employment at the Library between 1864 and 1893. These letters generally state that the writer is desirous of a "situation" (job) at the Library, list the writer's education, languages, and references, and act as a sample of handwriting, important in the age of handwritten catalogs. Letters often also allude to aspects of personal and social history, and note women seeking employment to support themselves or their families, especially after the Civil War.

The collection is also rich in detail on the individual stories of certain women. There are countless letters from Miss F.M. Slack, the librarian and only female staff member at the Museum of Comparative Zoology in the 19th century, highlighting her growing responsibilities for collecting and cataloging. Annie Hutchins from Melrose, Massachusetts is another woman who appears throughout the collection, first in a recommendation letter addressed to Sibley, then in letters detailing her experiences at Harvard College Library, traveling and studying in Europe, and asking Justin Winsor to return to the Library in 1886:

"Mr. Winsor, Dear Sir: After a stay of about three years in Europe, I have returned home, landing in New York on the 4th of this month... Now I am ready to enter again upon library work and take the liberty to ask if you would kindly spare me a half hour at your residence in preference to the College Library, that I may consult with you and receive your advice in regard to securing new position as soon as possible..."

As illustrated in subsequent letters, Hutchins went on to attend the Columbia "School of Library Economy" under Melvil Dewey, and eventually attained a position at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

Preservation and description of the Harvard College Library letters was supported by the Harvard Library's Hidden Collections initiative. Contact the Archives' reference staff for more information.