“The Wonder and Silence of Paper”

by Sarah-Jane Burton

It was the North American summer of 2019, and I was at the Houghton Library, Harvard University. I lifted the lid on a large brown box and was struck down by what the archivist had mentioned the day before. She’d warned me about a certain ‘odour’ when we’d discussed the advice of the University’s environmental team on how to approach the situation at hand. I’d agreed to take, what she’d explained, were significant risks to my own health in order to proceed with my work. My vision quickly caught up with my olfactory system and I saw fine curlicues of mildew decorating the edge of one worn page, poking out of a once-beige manila folder marked ‘Correspondence’. Speckles of mould-dust illustrated another sheaf of ragged pages and a bound folder looked as if it had withered beneath the weight of the grey and green powder which covered it. History was intertwining with biology. Paper had met nature. I was researching in archives, experiencing the past through physical material. Searching for stories in histories, in boxes. Looking for voices.
          My ‘relationship’ with Harvard began during my doctoral studies, a little less than ten years before that summer, when I’d applied for a dissertation grant at the Schlesinger Library for the History of Women in America. It was a small financial grant which dropped significantly after the international taxes. But that, months of savings, along with the help of The University of Wollongong, my postgraduate home university in Australia, meant that I was able to go. A girl with a Koori dad who could barely read and write, the first in her family to even go to university, was going to Harvard. I was to begin the first stages of my work with archival material. I didn’t know what archives really were then or that over my career such material history would something I was so passionate about.
          Despite pressure over my academic career to change trajectories due to my Indigenous heritage, my research has very little to do with Indigenous content. I don’t fight for Indigenous health outcomes, land rights or social equality in my work. I care about these issues, but I don’t research them. My skin is pale, my eyes are blue, I don’t battle physically to fit in to the world because of my family history. But belonging is about so much more than the physical and it is very rarely certain. In my work I write about white, privileged, mostly heterosexual, cisgendered, American poets. I am not pale on the inside. I am passionate about these poets, and this work.  My dad had a poet’s soul and he gave it to me, encouraged me to listen to and find and tell stories. Poetry is an oral tradition and it was and is one of the emotional, creative and intellectual places I feel a true sense of home. Improving educational access for Indigenous peoples drives me, not only increasing access to poetry but to educational institutions in general, especially those with ‘prestige’. I care about people who are learning while struggling to belong. I care about and was taught about Country, the need to spend time connected, about community, respect for elders, kinship, humility. I understand the psychological inheritances of trauma, alcoholism, abuse, children without parents, lost siblings, lost culture. I carry all this with me when I turn to the pages in an archive and poems in a book. I carry this story into the Australian institutions where I work.

I took all of this to Harvard. 

Harvard University itself was named in honour of a gift of books, when its first benefactor, the young minister John Harvard, left his personal library and half his estate to the institution in 1638.
          Two years after Harvard was founded it opened the ‘Indian College’. One of the current freshman dormitories of Harvard Yard, Matthews Hall, stands where this subset of the university operated from the 1650s into the end of the century. Only five Native American students attended the Indian College at Harvard, but the building was the first brick building of this iconic red brick University. Within its walls was the College’s printing press and it was here that the first Bible in North America was created, an Algonquian translation.

Matthews Hall, Harvard, 2019. Photo: Sarah-Jane Burton.

          But this time was an early phase of the complicated relationship between the College and Indigenous peoples, a relationship which continues to this day. Controversies including those over collections in Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology are ongoing but Harvard is now working towards a different future.
          The Peabody Museum is one of the sites on the Harvard campus that is full of archival wonders. It houses anthropological materials from across the globe, including more than 1.2 million individual cultural items, even hundreds of artefacts drawn from Australia and Indigenous peoples on my continent. I was in awe of the mythology of the place, the cultural and intellectual power, the knowledge.
          When I went to Harvard for the first time, I assumed that the gates and doors would open to me as soon as I arrived. They’d offered to fund me after all. They’d created the Indian College after all, diversity was an advertised priority of the University, as were international collaborations. But things are never quite this simple. The red brick and undulating cobblestones offered a different landscape, a different kind of country. Complicated connections.
          By the time I was working in the Houghton Library and the mouldy boxes in 2019, I’d returned to Harvard many, many times after that first fellowship, by 2019 it had become familiar. I’d learnt about the place where the archives were stored, and the place where I looked at them, touched them. Compared to the Indian College and the first parts of Harvard, I’d learnt that Houghton Library was reasonably young. It was the first custom-built building at a university in the United States specifically designed to house rare books, manuscripts and other ‘archival’ material. The Harvard Library system and the Peabody are different, but they share an ecosystem. The house the wonders of archives.
          Houghton came into being in 1942 after a former graduate of the university and an active arts patron, Arthur Houghton Jnr, bequeathed the funds required for the unique structure. It followed on from the infamous Harvard Treasure Room, which had been housed in the nearby Widener Library for several decades. This Treasure Room contained the various rarities that had been given to the university over several centuries, including medieval manuscripts, early printed books, American maps and rare newspapers from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Galbraith and Smith 5). According to an article in the Harvard Crimson about the expansion of the Treasure Room in 1929, (when the university was not yet co-educational), the room was described as ‘separated from the remainder [of the library] by locked doors. Glass casings have been built over the shelves surrounding the open space, and several tables and chairs […] placed about the room. These are to be used by men making studies for which facts can be found only in the volumes of the Treasure Room’ (‘Treasure Room’ np). I’d wondered if women hadn’t even entered that space, did Indigenous people? 

Houghton Library, Harvard University, 2019. Photo: Sarah-Jane Burton.

          The Harvard library system now has a mind-boggling 16.5 million volume university-wide physical collection of books and paper-based archival materials. Many of these are locked and preserved in the ‘HD’— the Harvard Depository, another intellectually sacred space, a modern marvel of materials preservation and storage, located in Southborough, Massachusetts. The HD is some forty-five minutes’ drive from the main campus and is a huge warehouse which houses roughly half of Harvard’s library collections. Climate-controlled, it is a chilly wonderland with thirty-foot shelves (a touch over nine metres) and the staff there require forklifts to retrieve many of the items when they are called in to one of Harvard’s seventy-three library locations for use. The Depository has around fifty aisles, each holding two thousand shelves and, on each shelf, hundreds of books.  As cultural historian Jeffrey Schnapp poetically explains, amongst those shelves there is a certain type of mystery and magic. He describes how ‘a deafening silence reigns in the midst of a universal spectacle of immobility. Books rub up against other books, typefaces touch in secret, imperceptible conversations are carried on, across the shelves and across the centuries that deride the petty illusions of the living’ (Cold Storage). 

My trip in 2019 was my second official and funded fellowship to Harvard across a decade, and this time everything was different. Over the years I have spent at the College working in the collections I’ve found my way, found my place and learnt that prestige and privilege comes with struggle and cost, along with many gifts. I finally feel I belong there, in part because of wonderfully supportive staff and teams, especially those at Houghton. But along the journey to this sense of belonging I had to wrestle with and learn what an archive was. What history was and is. What it means to me.
          While a contested academic term, an ‘archive’—as I understand it now—is an accumulation of historical records, but it’s also so much more. It is voices and visions, what is said and left unsaid. Often the spaces between physical materials or the lack of physical materials at all tells much more.
          We need to listen to the silence. 

Archival materials, Houghton Library, Harvard, 2019. Photo: Sarah-Jane Burton.

Etymologically, the word archive comes from the Greek arkhē, which means a ‘beginning’, an ‘origin’, a ‘first place’. The shape of this word always echoes in my mind when I first look into boxes and wonder what I’ll find, it haunts me when I think of my own family’s history and the lack of any paper or ‘evidence’ of them, the fact that there was a first place that was lost to them and ultimately to me. What do we do when there is no paper in which to find the past?
          But like so many stories and oral traditions can be lost to time, so can paper. The mouldy materials I was working with in 2019 had been damaged as the result of a flood in the residential basement that was their former home. Water had made its way into the items and been disguised under the sheaths of paper and cardboard. I’d helped deposit the archives into the Harvard collection around five years earlier and in those years, even with the HD’s impeccable temperature control, (a cool 10 degrees Celsius with 35% humidity), once-invisible little seeds of mould, or ‘spores’, had ferociously taken hold of many of the papers and ephemera so precious to the preservation of this slice of literary history. The paper had a fragile chemical makeup, the spores had caused destruction and a large part of this particular archive crumbled into dust. As books and paper contain a type of organic matter called cellulose, they are easily eaten by environmental, biological contaminants. These invaders multiply and knowledge is lost. This metaphor is not lost on me as I take my own story into my work with paper.
          The Houghton reading room is locked and protected with an on-site security guard, ID checks and strict rules. It is also always supervised by librarians and archivists. Clearance is required before scholars are able to enter the room or request materials and all materials are handled with a strict set of protocols including book cradles, and special weights to hold the pages as well as cotton gloves where necessary. But because my papers had been damaged, in 2019 I couldn’t work in the reading room. I had instead been invited to descend a spiral staircase and had found luxurious looking wooden doors with brass handles leading to the many rooms within Houghton’s lower levels. Some of the libraries in the Harvard system are connected by tunnels and corridors under the grounds of Harvard Yard. A secret hideaway. The underground nature of it all makes me think about what is even deeper. The Country. The past.
          I worked in a room where glass-covered shelves lined the walls and heavy, locked wooden cabinets sat below. I soon learned the sealed shelves and cupboards held Houghton’s precious printing and rare graphic arts collection, with most of the heavily adorned books surrounding me dating between 1500 and 1800 AD. I thought about how Indigenous people had lived on the grounds where Harvard stood for many years before that, the Shawmut Peninsula. The tribal homelands of the Massachusett people. There was a continuing presence of the Massachusett, and neighbouring Wampanoag and Nipmuc peoples here, but this grandeur was what stood now. In those spaces, I tried not to forget them—I still try.
          To be officially organised and part of an archival environment like Houghton, things need to be ‘accessioned’—archivist speak for the process of unpacking, examining, describing, and indexing materials. In the Journal of Archival Organization, Rachel Searcy describes how the process of accessioning is often one of the ‘least visible’, least ‘discussed’, and rarely ‘critically examined activities’ of the professional archivist (153), but this hidden practice is crucial to ensuring these items are properly stored and used. Usually fully accessioned collections will have a library catalogue entry and a ‘Finding Aid’ which details information about what is in each box, like a treasure map for researchers. Some particularly special or older collections, sometimes called Flagship Collections (Weideman 276), may have series and folder information too, so it’s easier for researchers to find what they’re searching for.
          But often these listings and descriptions miss things. While working at Houghton in 2019, I had found a sealed envelope. It was mostly free from damage but I couldn’t get it open. Adhesive, bits of water and time had sealed it firmly shut. Luckily, I was being supervised at the time by a conservation specialist. She examined my find, located supplies, and commenced her work. With meticulous precision, the conservationist lifted the envelope on to a papered surface. She unrolled a holder with a selection of tools that looked like a surgeon’s scalpel collection, and used a tiny silver knife with a thin, tapered tip to carefully and patiently enter into a small gap in the adhesive. She delicately opened the envelope seal, separating adhesive from paper tiny bit by tiny bit. I remember holding my breath as she barely blinked. It was one of the most remarkable things I’d ever seen, but in that moment I reflected on what an archive was again. As students stomped over the grounds of the campus, did they know? There was something as special as that envelope beneath them and it wasn’t just the library tunnels. It was there in the silence.  

Archival fragments, New England Poetry Club records, 1923-2011 (MS Am 3388). Photos: Sarah-Jane Burton.

I still have so much work to do with paper archives in the United States and at Harvard, but I always I wish I could do this work with my own family history. My father is gone, my grandfather is gone, his mother is gone. The archives I work in at Houghton are still here. Now in crisp Paige-brand acid-free and ‘calcium-carbonate buffered’ archive boxes they’ve been cleaned and protected. Resisting even the slightest changes in pH, they are now meticulously preserved. So much is involved in keeping things safe and unchanged in a place like this. Everyone here thinks about how paper leaks out chemicals over time here and can deteriorate. But this physical knowledge storage and preservation practice leaves us with an important message beyond the scientific specificities. If we want to preserve the past, we have to work at it. If we stop thinking about the past and working to keep it safe, it won’t be there for us to come back to. While our physical archival history needs to be cared for, catalogued, preserved and stored in a way that allows it to be accessed by the generations who come after us, we must consider the rest of the story. We must search the silence for voices and stories that aren’t on the page. We must remember the living archive around us.


Works Cited

Galbraith, Steven K., and Geoffrey D. Smith. Rare Book Librarianship: An Introduction and Guide. Santa Barbara: ABC CLIO, 2012.

Schnapp, Jeffrey. Cold Storage. MetaLab at Harvard, 2017, https://librarybeyondthebook.org/cold_storage/

Searcy, Rachel. ‘Beyond Control: Accessioning Practices for Extensible Archival Management’, Journal of Archival Organization, 14.3–4 (2018): 153–175.

‘Treasure Room in Widener Library is to be Enlarged: present quarters will still be used for displays—new arrangement to aid studies of old books’, (no writer attributed), Harvard Crimson, November 6, 1929. Sourced at: https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1929/11/6/treasure-room-in-widener-library-is/.

Weideman, Christine. ‘Accessioning as Processing’, The American Archivist, 69 (2006): 274–283.


Sarah-Jane Burton is a Research Fellow in English at the Australian National University and the Official Historian for the New England Poetry Club in Boston, MA, USA. She is a Wiradjuri woman from Central Western NSW and her research focuses on 20th Century American poetry and archives.