The Legacy of Harold Terrell at Houghton Library

By Peter X. Accardo, Scholarly and Public Programs Librarian

As part of our observance of African American history month, Houghton Library has taken an opportunity to research and reflect on the life and work of the library’s first African American colleague, Harold M. Terrell, Jr. At a time when the Harvard College Library employed very few African Americans, Harold was a notable exception in a career that spanned six decades. This post is intended to honor him and to highlight the lasting contributions he made to the library.

Harold was born in Boston on 20 June 1929, the youngest son of Harold and Mary (Forbes) Terrell.  His father had moved in 1920 from North Carolina to Boston, where he held several jobs through the Great Depression and the Second World War; his mother raised their three children at home. Young Harold attended public schools, graduating from Roxbury Memorial High School in 1947. Two years later he joined the staff of Houghton Library as an assistant in the library’s reading room; a photograph of reading room staff taken in the early 1950s shows Harold as a young man, sporting the fine pencil mustache he wore his entire life.

Five people stand behind a library reading room service desk.

Harold Terrell (far right) in the Houghton Library Reading Room with other staff members. Undated photograph. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

After serving his country during the Korean War, Harold transferred to the Houghton catalog department as a typist. In this role he distinguished himself by delivering accuracy where it most mattered: in the card catalogs of library collections then consulted by the scholarly public. From his desk on the Houghton mezzanine, he developed an extraordinary ability to decipher the handwriting of rare book catalogers who supplied him with their bibliographic worksheets, the lifeblood of his work. He mastered the orthographic conventions of most Western European languages, so much so that his proofreader’s red pencil was seldom lifted.

Harold’s typed cards were photomechanically reproduced in multiples for distribution in the library’s date of publication file, place of publication file, and official shelf list; other copies were carefully interfiled in the Union Catalog housed in Widener Library. Harold also produced brief bibliographic records on 3-part carbonless duplicate slips for incoming accessions that awaited full cataloging. He brought the same scrupulous attention to detail in his work as the department’s end-processor, responsible for typing shelf tabs and affixing bookplates and labels into the thousands of books that passed through his hands. To the general public, his activities were little known or understood, but they were essential to the effective functioning of a special collections library.

In the 1980s Harold’s cards found a new purpose when a set was sent to a team of bibliographers working on the Eighteenth-Century Short Title Catalog (ESTC), then in its development phase and which over time has become an indispensable digital resource for eighteenth-century studies. The ESTC bibliographers would annotate and return bundles of cards, in order to confirm the existence of a comma in a book’s title or whether an errata leaf was present in the Houghton copy. Ultimately, online cataloging and online public access catalogs (OPACs) brought about the demise of traditional card catalogs. But it was Harold’s cards that allowed other Houghton staff to devise the retrospective conversion projects that made possible the “digital turn” away from card catalogs toward HOLLIS: now his work became their life blood. The library partnered with University Microfilms International to undertake a major project to preserve the learned content of the old catalog on microfiche. To this day the microfiche is kept in the Houghton Reading Room, where it is consulted by staff and visiting bibliographers: turn on the fiche reader lamp and it is largely Harold’s cards that are illuminated, preserving for posterity the expertise of Houghton’s cataloging staff.

Several former colleagues remember details related to Harold that speak to his character and his quirks. “Harold had a bounce in his steps and moved quickly,” one reminisced: “His hands, above all, moved on the typewriter with the speed of lightning. I remember a ring – high school ring I believe – on the fourth or fifth finger of one of his amazing hands.” Sometime in the 1970s, Harold was presented with an IBM Correcting Selectric II typewriter, though it was only on rare occasions that he engaged the highly touted, self-correcting feature. The staccato of Harold’s typing became the mezzanine’s soundtrack for more than a generation.

Another colleague remembers Harold’s fondness for a straight-back aluminum chair, which she regarded as his “throne.” On occasion, a staff member would remove his throne for use by musicians who took part in the library’s chamber music series. If the throne was not promptly restored to the mezzanine by 9 AM the next day, the king was not amused. Another staff member recalls that Harold “had an extra dry sense of humor that you could only glean from the subtlety of his facial expressions.” You could expect a “well-executed eye roll” when he witnessed or overheard colleagues disputing the finer points of rare book cataloging or when an intruder trespassed his inner sanctum.

Shy and self-effacing, Harold still managed to bring his elegant sense of style to the library. He arrived each morning promptly, and impeccably dressed: jacket, pressed Oxford shirt (short sleeve in summer) and tie. Harold rarely took a sick day. He looked forward to occasional long weekends in Montreal, and in August, he met up with friends for extended and well-deserved stays at Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard.

A Black man in a suit holding a cigarette and two white women holding drinks in a party setting.

At a 1967 function in Houghton Library’s Edison and Newman Room, Harold Terrell chats with with Helen and Sally Bond, wife and daughter of Houghton Librarian William H. Bond. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

By the time he announced his intention to retire in 1994, Harold had accumulated many weeks of unspent vacation and sick time. True to type, he neatly filled out a stack of blue time slips, noting upon the last: “End of 45 years of service!!!” Well-wishing colleagues presented him with a navy blazer from Brooks Brothers. Sadly, only a few years remained for Harold to enjoy the company of his older brother Joseph and younger sister Gertrude (Terrell) Townsend (who had gained distinction in 1968 as a teacher at the first Montessori School in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood), along with his devoted nephews, nieces, and friends. While not widely recognized in his lifetime for his achievements, when Harold M. Terrell, Jr. died on 29 November 2000 he left an impressive record of exacting work, which continues to emanate in a digital guise from thousands of online bibliographic records in HOLLIS.

I wish to thank my Houghton colleagues, past and present, for sharing their memories of Harold Terrell: Anne Anninger, Vicki Denby, Cindi Naylor, Nancy Reinhardt, Janet Scinto, Golda Steinberg, Roger Stoddard, and Melanie Wisner.

Introducing Houghton Library’s New Digital Archivist

By Monique Lassere, Digital Archivist, Houghton Library

Hi, everyone. My name is Monique and I am Houghton Library’s new Digital Archivist! I started working at Houghton in May 2020. My job sits within the Manuscript Section and revolves around the born-digital collections Houghton acquires in the form of media like hard drives and floppy disks, or networked content, like websites. While I haven’t yet visited Houghton’s physical space due to the pandemic, there’s been no shortage of work to dive into while working remotely.

Over the last few months, I have spent much of my time digging into the born-digital archival materials we have on cloud storage. I’m able to do this because of the previous work conducted by Accessioning Archivist, Melanie Wisner, and past Administrative Fellow and Project Archivist, Magee Lawhorn, to get born-digital work off the ground at Houghton. Before I arrived, Melanie and Magee captured files from born-digital removable media, like the 3.5” floppy disks in the John Updike, John Ashbery, and Jerry Schatzberg papers, respectively. As a result, I can begin to work with the digital files we have on cloud storage to determine how we can best provide access for researchers to these materials.


Cosmic Visions: Illuminating Dante’s Divine Comedy

By Madeleine Klebanoff O’Brien

Last summer I conducted independent research at Houghton Library through Harvard’s remote Summer Humanities and Arts Research Program undergraduate fellowship. Inspired by Houghton’s collections, I created an allegorical map of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.

The Comedy follows Dante through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. It is a cosmography, a “total vision” of the cosmos. While most Comedy illustrations are episodic or focused on infernal topography, my map spans the entirety of Dante’s cosmos. It embodies a “total vision.”

The ultimate “total vision” is the beatific vision, in which Dante sees “by love in a single volume bound, / the pages scattered throughout the universe” (Alighieri, Dante. Paradiso. Translated by Robert and Jean Hollander, Anchor, 2007. XXXIII, 86-87). My map binds, in a “single volume,” the pages of the Comedy. It promises us a glimmer of Dante’s beatitude.


Baking with Emily D.

By Emily Walhout, Reference Assistant, Public Services and
Christine Jacobson, Assistant Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts

Around this time of year, Team Cake’s thoughts turn toward fruitcake. Emily Dickinson’s “black cake” to be precise—a 20-pound cake darkened by molasses and boasting 8 pounds of combined raisins, currants, and citron. The original manuscript of the recipe for this hefty cake, written in Miss Dickinson’s own hand, is housed in Houghton Library’s Emily Dickinson Collection.

Now, fruitcake is not a word that generally elicits delight or happy memories. A more common reaction might be skepticism or even a gasp of alarm. But Emily Dickinson’s black cake is not your average fruitcake. Along with the molasses and brandy, an assortment of aromatic spices goes a long way in giving this cake its memorable flavor.

For the past five years, Team Cake—a troupe of brave and curious bakers at Houghton—has recreated this cake, rigorously adhering to the poet’s recipe, and served it up to colleagues and friends at celebration of the poet’s birthday on December 10. Fruitcakes are traditionally steeped in brandy and stored away for months to mature and ripen, so September is the time to get a cake underway if it’s to be shared in December.


A Stellar Intern

By Vicki Denby, Manuscript End Processor, Technical Services Department, Houghton Library

This past spring, Houghton Library Technical Services had the superluminous pleasure of working with Zoe Padilla, a senior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS). This is the seventh consecutive year we been able to hire a paid intern from CRLS to learn about our work by helping end-process our collections.

Through the School-to-Work (STW) program, the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW) coordinates with the Cambridge Office of Workforce Development, Harvard schools/departments, and CRLS to provide job training and learning opportunities for high school students. Joie Gelband of HUCTW helps select students to work in departments for three afternoons a week as paid interns. Each student has an HUCTW member as a supervisor the student an overview of the work and specific assignments. They explain how the student’s work fits into the mission of the department, and check in regularly with updates and feedback.