Research Tips from Richard: Life at Harvard’s Widener Library

Researchers love making pilgrimages to the leading libraries in the world. The city of Boston is so blessed. For Portsmouth area residents, a trip to Boston amounts to a bus, train, or car ride, some fifty-seven miles south.    widener1

I know that an annual $250 fee for a Harvard College library card is not for everyone. ( Editor’s note: independent researchers can apply for a free, 3-month Visiting Researcher Card) This plastic card, however, opens up the resources of more than seventy libraries on campus, embracing a collection of more than seventeen million volumes, making it, in short, the largest academic collection in the world. For me, the cost is a bargain, and with one swipe of the card in the entrance gate, I share the same privileges as if I were the president of the university.

Every time I mount the steps of the Widener Library, the chief flagship depository, I know I am going to find something for the day’s effort. The periodical section is especially outstanding. All the electronic gadgetry is readily available. A superb staff is most helpful in every way. For a snack, one does not have to leave the building; a person simply heads to the basement café with its ample food and beverage vending machines. The whole experience is a researcher’s paradise.

But the Harvard library visit is not limited to the confines of Widener. While in Cambridge, one finds time to stroll around Harvard Square, a beat-of-life crossroads of every national, ethnic, racial, spiritual, religious, and political group. I am never alone, as vendors, students, street theatre, sidewalk musicians, panhandlers, and soapbox orators crowd the scene. Restaurants, bookstores, tobacco shops, ice cream parlors, and coffee houses abound.

For those inclined, one might wander over to the Revolution Books store, a place devoted to Communist, Socialist, and leftist literature. A red door marks the entrance. As a friend had gone to Red China as a tourist, I decided to stop by to purchase a few gifts.

mao1In keeping with my interests in libraries and as a historian, I recalled that Mao Zedong (also known as Mao Tse-Tung) had worked as a librarian at Peking University in 1918. Think of how world history might have changed if Mao had remained true to his library calling, along with writing poetry as a sideline. Who knows, Mao might have conceivably landed an exchange position at Widener as an expert on Chinese literature and culture. Mao chose to pursue a different career.

Speculation aside, I urge all committed students and scholars to at least walk around Harvard Square, and if so inclined to procure a Harvard library card. They will have the opportunity to search for rare and hard-to-get, even unique, items that he would not have discovered elsewhere.

For myself, I have enjoyed many happy hours at one of the finest library systems on the planet.

Happy treasure hunting!

To access the Harvard libraries, contact:
By e-mail:
By Web:
By telephone: 1-(617)-682-9043

RichardResearch Tips is written by Richard E. Winslow III, Local Historian Emeritus, who has worked in Special Collections at the Portsmouth Public Library for 30 years. He is a local historian and author on topics such as the Naval Shipyard, the Gundalow, submarines, shipbuilding, privateers, Frank Jones, and more.

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