Book Club

How to get into one of the world's greatest libraries

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he oldest library in the United States, second in size only to the Library of Congress, the library at Harvard University is headquartered in Widener Library, named for Harvard graduate Harry Elkins Widener, who went down on the Titanic. But while Widener is no longer open to the public (thanks to users who complained about chatty tour guides), the rare book collection housed next door in Houghton Library has an elegant exhibition hall that shows selections from its unparalleled holdings. The collections include everything from Shakespeare first folios to the papers of Leon Trotsky. And here’s another secret: Even Widener is open to certain privileged people who don’t go to Harvard. Harvard alumni, can use it, for example. So can spouses and domestic partners of Harvard ID holders, Harvard Extension School students, faculty and doctoral students of other institutions, and many people affiliated with MIT. Of course, you have to be practically fingerprinted to get in, but it’s worth it. Click here to find out how.

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The historic 1650 university charter, oldest corporate charter still in use in the Western Hemisphere, is in the Harvard University archives in Pusey Library, which also has John Hancock’s John Hancock from the days he served as Harvard treasurer, and library records showing what Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau read when they were students. This is also where they keep the keys to Harvard, used at the inaugurations of every university president since 1846, although they don’t actually open anything.

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