Reflections from Harvard University – Dr Cassandra Atherton

My two favourite libraries at Harvard – the places where I spend a lot of my time –are the Widener and Houghton libraries. Widener was built after Harry Widener drowned in the foundering of the Titanic, along with his father. Legend has it that Harry, as a first class passenger, was about to board a lifeboat but went back to his cabin to retrieve a rare book (he was a collector) and was never seen again. His mother survived the tragedy and donated the library to Harvard in memory of her son (Harry was a Harvard alum). You can’t enter Widener without a Harvard ID card, so it’s sheltered from the huge number of sightseers on campus. Fresh flowers are placed under Harry’s portrait every day. I walk past that room most days and go and work in the reading room at Widener, it’s so quiet and beautiful. I wrote my Honours thesis on the Titanic and I was a total Titanicophile in my twenties, so it seems fitting I work in the Widener!


My other favourite place to work is Houghton library. In my first week I was given a tour of Houghton and discovered they have impressive collections of rare books and artefacts that include Samuel Johnson, John Keats, Dante, Lewis Carroll, Goethe, Cervantes and amazingly the most incredible Emily Dickinson collection. Houghton has Dickinson’s writing desk and chair (which are tiny) and the bureau where she kept her poetry and where they were found after her death. As a huge fan of Dickinson, I almost had a meltdown! I love looking at writers’ handwriting – I always have and Houghton doesn’t disappoint with their original documents. Seeing Dickinson’s (and Keats’) handwriting on original documents, rather than in facsimile, is brilliant. Houghton is a really gorgeous building and another wonderful place to write!


Dr Cassandra Atherton is currently researching at Harvard University as a Visiting Scholar, continuing her work on public intellectuals.


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