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Houghton Library’s rare objects inspire students

Posted: 05 Jan 2018 09:00 AM PST

It's hard to imagine even the most jaded student entering the Houghton Library without a sense of awe. Within these walls, you can read a letter signed personally by Vladimir Lenin, unfold a book of spells from Indonesia, and marvel at Emily Dickinson's writing desk and chair.

As Houghton celebrates its 75th anniversary, scholars take a look back at how some of the library's rare holdings have inspired their research.

Katherine Leach, a Ph.D. student in Celtic languages and literatures, took her students to Houghton to explore medieval and early modern tracts against witchcraft.

Librarian Emilie Hardman showed them original sources from the period such as the Malleus Maleficarum but to the delight of the class, she also rolled out an Indonesian spell book, bamboo sticks engraved with spells, and an Armenian charm scroll.

Indonesian spell book

Press play, above, to hear Houghton librarian Emilie Hardman discuss the Batak accordion book of spells. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Armenian charm scroll

Press play, above, to hear Houghton librarian Emilie Hardman discuss this charm scroll from 1708. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

"The class changed because of what Emilie brought in to show my students," Leach says. "There were two Armenian students in the class. Seeing that scroll blew their minds. They were posting on Instagram and texting other Armenian students."

Leach says that as a medievalist, she's often focused exclusively on texts and manuscripts but "seeing these artifacts made the topic more relatable, more real" for her students.

"I was so impressed with the collection and with Emilie," Leach says.

Bamboo log engraved with spells

Press play, above, to hear Houghton librarian Emilie Hardman discuss this spell-engraved bamboo stick. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Malleus Maleficarum

Press play, above, to hear Houghton librarian Emilie Hardman discuss the Malleum Maleficarum. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Today, we can zoom in on any part of the world through Google Maps and Street View.

When German cosmographer Sebastian Münster made his Cosmographia, a book intended to capture the world as he knew it in the 16th century, he did not have the benefit of Google's tools.

Instead, Münster recruited a resident from every German burg to provide him with drawings of their cities, says Jasper van Putten '15.

A Ph.D. student in the history of art and architecture when he found the text at Houghton, van Putten launched a research project that would have astonished Münster.

Using GIS mapping tools — with landmarks such as church spires and old city walls as his guide — he overlaid the antique drawings from Münster's book over modern satellite maps of German cities.

Cosmographia

Press play, above, to hear Houghton librarian Emilie Hardman discuss the “Cosmographia” from 1550. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Surprisingly, the old illustrations were fairly accurate, van Putten says. However, in some, important landmarks were nudged into positions that made the cities look more important.

"One city moved a castle about 300 meters to put it in the center of the view," according to van Putten.

The Cosmographia stayed in print for about 90 years with maps added or redesigned in later editions, van Putten says, so he stacked up the views in GIS to flip back and forth and see how the cities had changed over time. He has put his work online, giving researchers and history buffs anywhere a bird's eye view of the way that 16th century Germans saw their world.

Bijou light bulb

Press play, above, to hear Houghton librarian Emilie Hardman discuss this light bulb from the 1880s. Photo courtesy of Harvard University Library

Jeremy Zallen '14 wanted to write about the history of illumination for his Ph.D. dissertation. While exploring the earliest forms of electric light in the United States he came across the records of the Bijou Theatre.

In the 1880s, the Boston venue became the first fully electrified theater in the country. A single, fragile light bulb survived from that era and sits in Houghton alongside the theater's financial records.

If you put this tiny bulb on a shelf in Home Depot, you might not notice that it is a relic from the 1880s, with a bamboo, rather than tungsten, filament.

"The bulb would have been made in Menlo Park, under the direction of Thomas Edison. In those days, they were experimenting with a number of filament types," Zallen says. "The bamboo filament would have been less bright than previous electric light bulbs, but it would have lasted at least a few days — which was a big improvement."

The bulb brought up more questions than answers for Zallen: Why did someone save this solitary light bulb? Were the electric lights' primary purpose functional, or were they really just props to publicize Edison's invention?

Andrea Bohlman, Ph.D. '12 in music, unexpectedly discovered a series of underground recordings at Houghton while preparing for a trip to Poland that she says, "changed my research methodology forever."

"I was probably on page 57 of search results in the HOLLIS catalog when I stumbled upon the Solidarity Collection," Bohlman said.

Comprising dozens of cassette tapes belonging to Poles who resisted or subverted the Communist government as a part of the Solidarity movement of the 1980s, the collection opened up a whole new world of research for Bohlman.

Bohlman heard everything from politically conscious Polish rock music to bootlegged news reports from broadcasters sympathetic to the Solidarity movement.

"Cassette tapes are convenient materials for politically subversive communication — you can wipe them with a magnet, you can record over them, but you can also copy them infinitely," Bohlman said.

Solidarity-related cassette tapes became the cornerstone of Bohlman's dissertation, now a forthcoming book, "Musical Solidarities: Political Action and Music in Late Twentieth-Century Poland."

"Now everywhere I go to conduct research, I look for weird sound recordings," Bohlman says. "They're an untapped resource."

To read the full story, visit the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences website.

Bol to step down as vice provost for advances in learning

Posted: 05 Jan 2018 08:00 AM PST

Peter K. Bol, the Charles H. Carswell Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, will step down at the end of the summer as vice provost for advances in learning to return to the faculty and to his teaching and research on China's history.

As vice provost for five years, Bol has played a key role in advancing Harvard's excellence in teaching and learning on campus and online. He has overseen HarvardX, the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT), and VPAL Research. His leadership helped fuel impressive growth for HarvardX, the University-wide strategic initiative whose online course collection rose from 10 to more than 100 during his tenure, reaching more than 2 million unique course participants in 193 countries. He has also directed efforts to utilize digital resources to enhance on-campus education, incorporating HarvardX's educational collection into residential classes.

"Peter Bol has helped Harvard pioneer new approaches to teaching, learning, scholarship, and research at a time when advances in technology have created remarkable opportunities for individuals to access educational material," said President Drew Faust. "His leadership as vice provost for advances in learning has helped accelerate Harvard's important online efforts, all while enhancing our understanding of how students learn in an era of educational innovation in the classroom and beyond."

Bol has worked to make Harvard a leading example of a 21st-century liberal arts and sciences university, one that offers the highest level of education to learners in its own classrooms and across the globe. As vice provost, Bol created VPAL Research, a team tasked with assessing and improving residential, blended, and digital learning environments and providing research collaborations that advance the science of learning.

"Peter's steadfast commitment to improving learning — on campus and in the world at large — is inspiring," Provost Alan Garber said. "He has encouraged a culture of innovation and collaboration that will advance the University's educational mission for years to come."

More recently, Bol spearheaded the creation of HarvardDART (Digital Assets for Reuse in Teaching), a modern search application offering instant access to HarvardX content and the ability to embed individual learning assets — including videos, assessments, and text pages — directly into Harvard course websites. His leadership also witnessed the launch of a new University-wide publication, "Into Practice," which has shared timely, evidence-based teaching and learning tips with thousands of instructors across Harvard's Schools.

"The goal of the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning is to further teaching and learning efforts on campus and across the globe," Bol said. "Without the commitment of the faculty to teaching and research, and our extraordinarily talented professional staff, it would not be possible. It has been a pleasure and an honor to work with them these past five years."

In addition to his faculty responsibilities, Bol will remain director of the China Historical Geographic Information Systems (GIS) project, a collaboration between Harvard and Fudan University in Shanghai, and the China Biographical Database project, with Academia Sinica and Peking University. A search committee for Bol's successor will be appointed in the coming weeks.

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