Houghton Library Collections Strategy

As a part of its core mission, Houghton Library acquires new collection material through gift and purchase to enable research, teaching, cultural enrichment, creative work, and other activities based in and inspired by rare books, manuscripts, archives, and other rare and unique materials. Like all libraries and archives, Houghton’s collection reflects the work of generations of curators, librarians, archivists, donors, dealers, and others who harnessed their judgment, perspective, knowledge, and expertise to acquire new holdings for the library. New additions to the library build upon the work of the past, serve the present, and anticipate future uses; priorities change over time and reflect broader movements in the university and our society and culture at large. While interest in different areas of the collection will ebb and flow, new acquisitions are intended to stand the test of time and remain part of the library for the foreseeable future. The responsibilities inherent to this work are, therefore, immense as we consider our contribution to social and cultural memory and intellectual understanding, and the resources required to steward objects effectively through time.

The work of developing collections relies upon the sound judgment and intuition of curators, who draw heavily on the expertise of colleagues at Houghton as well as other parts of the library, university, and profession when making decisions to add new acquisitions to Houghton collections. Collection materials we purchase are shaped by the terms of gift funds provided through the years by library donors. Our approaches are derived more from art than science, but the range and volume of potential acquisitions require curators to create and work within frameworks and ethical principles that guide our efforts and prevent arbitrary decisions.  

The Houghton Library Collections Strategy represents such a framework and articulates the library’s current priorities. It includes guiding principles, a set of values and aspirations that apply to all Houghton Library acquisitions activities. These are followed by statements specific to each of Houghton’s five main curatorial departments: Early Books and Manuscripts, Modern Books and Manuscripts, the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard Theatre Collection, and Printing and Graphic Arts. Each department utilizes methods and creates priorities distinct to the needs of those collections and their primary users, while recognizing that the interconnections between departments and collections create a stronger library. The Strategy concludes with a list of materials which, at this time, are out of scope for our collections, as well as a list of the Harvard Library repositories that currently do accept these materials.

This document also represents the library’s collecting philosophy during a time of great change and disruption. We welcome the opportunity to ensure our work makes a significant contribution to the many communities we serve and to our society and culture, present and future. This necessitates that our perspectives and practices continue to evolve. As we advance our collections strategy, we acknowledge an institutional history of prioritizing the lives, work, and interests of the privileged, particularly white men of European descent. We commit to working explicitly to redress that imbalance by expanding our holdings related to a more diverse set of individuals and groups and developing our capacity to steward these materials appropriately; and to seek out methods of working collaboratively with other libraries, archives, communities, and individuals to ensure the preservation of a more equitable understanding of our history and culture, broadly defined. Additionally, we recognize the existential threat that climate change brings to our planet and anticipate adapting our approaches to acquisitions and stewardship to become more responsible global citizens. The technologies humans use to communicate with one another and to record information continue to expand, creating the need for new methods and assumptions related to the formats acquired by the library. These issues and many others also draw us into closer collaboration with libraries, archives, and other partners at Harvard and beyond. With humility and enthusiasm, we embrace our role of acquiring and preserving unique and rare library materials to allow our users to learn about our past, understand our present, and shape a better future. 

Read the full collections strategy.

Thomas Hyry
Florence Fearrington Librarian of Houghton
October 2020