Inside the Houghton Library: A Treasure Trove of History and Literature

Nestled in the heart of Harvard University, Houghton Library stands as a beacon of knowledge and history. Established in 1942, it has remained the primary repository for Harvard’s rare books and manuscripts, drawing scholars and enthusiasts from around the world. Its rich history and cultural significance make it a captivating subject of exploration.

In this article, we will explore various aspects of Houghton Library, delving into its historical beginnings and its contemporary importance.

The Beginnings

Gore Hall, Cambridge, Harvard
Treasure Room of Gore Hall

Houghton Library’s journey began with the Treasure Room of Gore Hall in 1908, a precursor to the specialized collections that would later define it. The library, as it is known today, was officially opened in 1942, thanks to the generous funding of Arthur A. Houghton Jr. This marked a new chapter in Harvard’s commitment to preserving literary and historical artifacts.

Rare and Historic Collections

It is renowned for its diverse collections, which include significant holdings related to Samuel Johnson, Emily Dickinson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Among its prized possessions are the letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a key figure in the American Civil War. These collections offer unparalleled insights into the literary, historical, and cultural narratives of the past.

Architecture and Location

Situated on the south side of Harvard Yard, adjacent to other notable Harvard landmarks, Houghton Library not only holds treasures within its walls but is also a treasure in its own right. Its location and architectural design complement its role as a custodian of history.

Architects – Perry, Shaw & Hepburn

A significant aspect of Houghton Library’s allure is its architectural design, masterminded by the Boston-based firm Perry, Shaw & Hepburn. Founded in 1922 by William Graves Perry, Thomas Mott Shaw, and Andrew Hopewell Hepburn, the firm quickly established itself with the master planning and restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, their first major commission.

Curators and Their Collections

The building’s organizational structure comprises five main curatorial departments, each specializing in different historical periods and types of materials. These include Early Books and Manuscripts, Modern Books and Manuscripts, and the Harvard Theatre Collection, among others. This specialization allows for a more focused and detailed preservation and study of various collections.

The Harvard Theatre Collection: A Cultural Beacon at Houghton Library

Established in 1901, the Harvard Theatre Collection at Houghton Library is one of the world’s oldest and most comprehensive archives of performing arts. Encompassing theater, dance, ballet, music, opera, and even popular forms like circus and stage magic, this collection is a testament to Harvard’s dedication to preserving diverse cultural narratives.

Initiated by George Pierce Baker, the collection boasts an extensive range of materials, from dramatic literature, manuscripts, and play texts to playbills, programs, posters, and original artworks. Its visual assets, including prints and photographs, vividly document the history and evolution of performance arts.

Available through the Houghton Library reading room, the collection offers scholars and enthusiasts access to a wealth of resources. Items are cataloged in HOLLIS, Harvard’s library system, and a specialized Guide for Researchers aids in navigating this vast repository. Highlighted segments include Shakespeare Promptbooks, the Tennessee Williams Collection, and rare items like Paul Robeson’s Othello memorabilia.

The Harvard Theatre Collection not only underscores Houghton Library’s role in academic and cultural preservation but also serves as a dynamic resource for exploring the rich tapestry of performing arts history.

Notable Holdings and Collections

The library’s holdings are not just diverse but also significant in their historical and literary value. From T.S. Eliot to E.E. Cummings, the collections encompass a wide range of influential figures. The Harvard Theatre Collection and the Woodberry Poetry Room are highlighted, showcasing the library’s commitment to preserving the arts in all forms.

Public Access and Community Engagement

Houghton Library is not just a repository for scholars but also a vibrant community space. Its public areas are open to all visitors, reflecting Harvard’s commitment to sharing knowledge. The library offers various services like teaching with primary sources and hosting free events, making it a dynamic center of learning and exploration.

Community Expectations and Access Policies

The library maintains a set of community expectations, emphasizing respect and safety. Access to its materials is facilitated through HOLLIS and HOLLIS Special Request, making it convenient for researchers and enthusiasts to delve into its collections. Additionally, the library extends its reach through fellowships, prizes, and publication of scholarly articles.


What is the most beautiful library at Harvard?

Widener Library is often regarded as the most beautiful library at Harvard University. It is known for its vast collection and impressive architecture​​​.

Who is the Houghton Library at Harvard named after?

The Houghton Library at Harvard is named after Arthur A. Houghton Jr., who largely funded its construction.

What is the world’s largest academic library?

To find the world’s largest academic library, a separate search would be needed as the information wasn’t covered in the current search.

Can you go in Harvard Library?

Yes, you can go into Harvard Library, including Widener Library. However, access is primarily for Harvard ID holders, who may bring up to four guests​.

What is the famous library in Harvard?

The most famous library at Harvard is Widener Library, known for its extensive collections and historical significance​​​.

Is Harvard Library the biggest library in the world?

Harvard Library is one of the largest academic libraries in the world, but to confirm if it’s the biggest, additional research is required.

Does Harvard have the oldest library?

Harvard does have one of the oldest libraries in the United States, but it’s not the oldest in the world. Additional research would be needed to provide more detailed information on this topic.


Houghton Library stands as a testament to Harvard University’s dedication to preserving and sharing knowledge. From its historical collections to its modern amenities, it offers a unique window into the past and a resource for future generations. Whether you are a scholar, student, or simply a lover of history and literature, Houghton Library beckons with its wealth of knowledge and heritage.

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