Harvard Yenching Library Rare Books Collection


A review of the Harvard Yenching Library Rare Books Collection, Harvard University, Cambridge MA, USA.

The Harvard-Yenching Library holds more than 1.3 million volumes. This review won’t bore readers with the details of each collection, which are introduced on the library’s website. Instead, my aim is to convince the reader to consider a visit to the library and its world-class rare book collection. Although most of the library’s holdings are listed in fully searchable catalogs, there are many discoveries awaiting even cursory exploration. Our persisting ignorance of the Harvard-Yenching collection is best expressed anecdotally. I will briefly relate two tales of discovery enabled by the library’s eccentric collections before introducing relevant resources for visitors.

On February 27, Min Jung a Harvard Yenching fellow and professor of Korean literature at Hanyang University delivered a fascinating talk entitled, “Cultural Exchanges between Korean and Chinese Literati in the 18th and 19th Centuries: The Fujitsuka Chikashi (1879-1948) Collection in the Harvard-Yenching Library.” Dr. Min Jung arrived at Harvard with a different project, but he quickly discovered that the library had unintentionally bought a large part of the “lost” private collection of the famous Sinologist Fujitsuka Chikashi (1879-1948) during the 1950s. Fujitsuka, a specialist in Sino-Korean-Japanese exchange, bought over 10,000 books in Liulichang in the early 20th century. Although most of his collection burned during the allied bombings of Tokyo, his home collection (his most valued books) survived and was gradually auctioned off after his death.

Until Dr Min Jung’s visit to Harvard, the location of most of his collection remained a mystery. Min Jung began to realize the Yenching held a significant portion of his books when he recognized Fujitsuka’s seal on the inside of a book. Intrigued, he began to identify a significant number of Fujitsuka’s books. He discovered important items scattered through the stacks, the depository, and the rare book room. The most astonishing moment of his talk occurred when he showed us an image of a piece of calligraphy that fell out of a book from the depository. The calligraphy was written by a famous eighteenth century Korean scholar, and Min Jung stated, “This was in the depository. This scrap of paper is worth tens of thousands of dollars in Korea.”

My experiences in the rare book collection have been similarly illuminating. Recently, I discovered that a text ambiguously labeled “Manchu exercise book” was actually a section of Qiying’s previously unknown bilingual Manchu-Chinese diary. Moreover, books are often loaded with the paraphernalia of a book historian’s dreams: marginalia, notes, and unexpected calligraphic treasures. If you are still in doubt, please take a look at this entry I wrote after the Take Note conference held at Harvard last fall. To see more collection highlights presented at that conference you can also check out Kuniko McVey’s online exhibit from the Japanese collection.

If the Harvard-Yenching hold materials useful for your research, there are a few steps you should take before coming to Harvard. First, you should explore the online library catalogs. The library system currently maintains two such catalogs, HOLLIS and HOLLIS Classic. HOLLIS does not support searching in Asian scripts. In other words, you can search by means of romanization systems. HOLLIS Classic (hollisclassic.harvard.edu), which does support Asian script searching, is more useful. Note also that, once you do a few searches, you’ll find that the Harvard-Yenching has already digitized a large number of Asian language rare books, which are available for free through either Google Books or the library. The expanded search feature will allow you to better perform your search and to help you isolate materials in our rare book collection. Also useful are the numerous printed catalogs for the library’s rare book collection. These have the great benefit of holistic organization, allowing you to find materials that may have otherwise been overlooked. Finally, before your visit I recommend making contact with our research librarians. The materials you’d like to see may be unavailable due to digitization. The wonderful library staff will be able to let you know what collections are unavailable and to offer other assistance.

Getting to the library is fairly easy, and there are travel grants available for eligible scholars. While the Yenching is open to anyone holding a university ID (from any university), access to the rare book collection is more restricted. For access to any of the special collections at Harvard, you must register with the university and create a Special Collections Request account. After your account has been created, you’re ready for rare books. Request the materials you would like to see through the online system. You can make requests any time before going to the reading room. The reading room is located on the third floor of the Harvard-Yenching library. It is open from 9:30 am to 12:00 pm and reopens 1:30 pm to 4:00 pm, Monday through Friday. Unfortunately, the library seems to have meetings that regularly conflict with the afternoon opening hours, so don’t be surprised if you lose an afternoon or two. There are no bags allowed in the reading room. You can leave your bag in the rare books office.

Beyond the rare book room, the library has much more to offer. The official library website has information on digital collections as well as area specific research guides.

Devin Fitzgerald
PhD Candidate
East Asian Languages and Civilizations
Harvard University


Image: Qing Han Hua Tiao 淸漢話條 (undated MS), and the Sanhe Bianlan 三合便览 (Manchu-Mongolian-Chinese Dictionary) published in 1792. Photograph by Devin Fitzgerald.

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