Monday, June 5th, 2017...9:30 am

The Start of Something Big

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This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select on display in the Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.

MS Hyde 50 (38)In 1746, a consortium of London publishers approached Samuel Johnson, a rising star in the literary world, with a proposal: write an English dictionary. In the end, Johnson was equal to the task, but only after nine years of mammoth intellectual labor. Although the practice of lexicography has advanced considerably in the centuries since, Johnson’s Dictionary is still regarded as a tour de force, appreciated for the wit and trenchancy of its definitions, and the erudition underlying its illustrative quotations. Samuel Johnson’s stamp on the writing of English is profound and lasting.

Everything started from this modest manuscript, now visibly cracked from the corrosive ink used to write it. Over the course of a handful of pages Johnson lays out his plan for a work that would grow to two enormous volumes: how he will choose the words to define, how he will determine their proper spelling, from which authors he will draw quotations.

One of the joys of working with rare books and manuscripts is the glimpses they provide of the origins of significant things. Every time I (very carefully!) hold this little manuscript, I feel closer to one of the greatest achievements in the English language, and I experience the thrill of that history.

MS Hyde 50 (38)

Much less significantly to the world of letters, but of great importance to me personally, this item also represents the start of my career at Houghton Library. In 2004, I was hired as one of three project catalogers working on the newly-arrived Hyde Collection of Samuel Johnson. in that role, I made HOLLIS records for every one of the more than 3000 printed books in the collection. I came to Houghton with training in rare book cataloging, but no particular expertise in Samuel Johnson. Cataloging the collection was my on-the-job training in Johnson and his circle, and it provided an education in both a fascinating figure and a world-class collection of books and manuscripts.

I started at Houghton on a project appointment of two and a half years. I’m very grateful that they decided to keep me around, and I am now approaching my 13th anniversary with the library and my 5th as Curator of the Hyde Collection. In that role I have the great pleasure of looking for new acquisitions to continue to build on this magnificent collection, thanks to endowment funds bequeathed to Harvard by Mary Hyde Eccles. It can be a challenge to find things we don’t already have, but it’s a highly enjoyable one.

Thanks to John Overholt, Curator of the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson and of Early Modern Books & Manuscripts, for contributing this post.

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