The Best-Laid Plans: A Letter from the Editors

Mitch Nakaue

Mitch Nakaue is Scholarly Communication Librarian at Houghton Library, Harvard University, and the managing editor of Harvard Library Bulletin.

Anne-Marie Eze

Anne-Marie Eze is Director of Scholarly and Public Programs at Houghton Library, Harvard University. She is Editor-in-Chief of Harvard Library Bulletin.

A sheep with its left foreleg raised, below a banner with the inscription "PERSEVERE."
Detail, The bookplate of ABA [?]. From the Houghton Library Bookplate Collection, Harvard College Volume II.

In fall 2018, the current editing team of Harvard Library Bulletin began the project of converting the journal from a subscription-based print publication to online and open access. During those golden autumn days, we looked towards a hazy but pleasant future when the project was over and we could turn our attention to collaborating with colleagues to further the work of the journal. There would also be a launch party, probably with cake and perhaps a balloon.

The reality in which we find ourselves two years later is not quite what we had in mind. On the one hand, it seems risky to re-launch a journal in November 2020, after months of shocking, dispiriting, and tragic events and on the eve of another pandemic lockdown. On the other, HLB’s 73-year history has been punctuated by national and global incidents that shook to the core every aspect of society, and whose reverberations ran straight through higher education and its libraries. While our re-launch is necessarily quiet and solemn, our mission to freely disseminate research and share the life of Harvard Library has been injected with a greater sense of purpose and urgency. As it turns out, the HLB we began creating in 2018 seems almost tailor-made to address this moment.

The new Harvard Library Bulletin (affectionately called “HLB 2.0” during the project’s lengthy research and development phase) breaks with many of its past attributes. Most obviously, it no longer appears in print, and this fundamental change has led to many if not most of the others, three of which we’ll discuss here.

First and foremost, we are proud that HLB is now open access. While being online is not a prerequisite for being open access, publishing HLB in digital format greatly expands our ability to make the journal available to a wide audience. All of the content on this site is free to read—nothing here is behind a paywall or requires users to register, nor do we have article processing charges (APCs) that authors must pay in order to provide open access to the scholarship that they have created. As an endowed journal, HLB can absorb these costs and remove the barriers to access that are associated with subscriptions, paywalls, and APCs. Open access is a new facet of HLB’s identity as journal, one we are eager to embrace and develop in the months and years ahead.

Second, while peer-reviewed articles will still comprise the largest part of HLB’s content, we will also publish shorter discussions or analyses of individual collections or collection items; theoretical, philosophical, or practice-based essays related to librarianship at Harvard; and announcements of significant acquisitions, collections newly available for research (especially born-digital or digitized collections), and Harvard Library milestones. These features are not new—similar elements were present in the Harvard Library Bulletin of 1947. We aim to provide publishing and authoring opportunities for staff in Harvard Library and related units, as well as students, faculty, and visiting researchers. For the first time, we’re also able to publish audio/visual work, digital scholarship, databases and sets, and interactive content—all of which we’re quite certain will enrich current and future understanding of Harvard Library.

Third, we have ceased publishing in issue format, a decision we made following much discussion as a team and with various stakeholders. Shifting to a rolling publication model and releasing articles as soon as they have been edited means that authors’ work will appear more quickly and the HLB site won’t languish for months or a year between issues; it also fits logically with the targeted way readers seek, discover, and consume information: at the individual article level. More significantly, publishing HLB on a rolling basis underscores that it is not trying to simulate a bound paper journal: it is a born-digital entity unconfined by the conventions and limitations of print.

Hand-in-hand with our commitment to accessibility is our commitment to making HLB more reflective of the diversity and scope of Harvard Library and its collections, as well as the people who steward, conduct research in, teach with, and learn from those collections. While we plan to continue publishing subjects and disciplinary perspectives that have been historically well-represented in the journal, we’re actively seeking out new relationships with libraries and archives across the university and collaborating with faculty and members of the Advisory Board to promote HLB as a publishing outlet for all sorts of scholarly and creative work being done with the collections. Through these human networks and our new online presence, we hope to increase the academic community’s awareness that HLB exists and that we want to publish research from across the disciplines, as well as projects that use Harvard Library collections in unexpected, innovative ways.

We also believe that publication is not a gift that a journal bestows on grateful authors—it is, in fact, quite the opposite: as publishers, we have to earn every article, essay, and project that researchers and creators entrust to us. If the future for HLB that we want involves promoting the work of students and emerging scholars, or hosting digital projects, or valuing and making more visible a diverse authorship writing on diverse subject matter, we need find ways to say yes, to stretch, and to support. We need to do this now.

One thing that won’t change is HLB’s interest in the historical record; we will never stop looking to the past and what we can learn from it. It’s fitting that our first long-form article is a piece of library history by Kenneth E. Carpenter, who was editor of Harvard Library Bulletin for 20 years. Its title, “Why George Washington’s Library Is Not at Harvard,” might suggest a tale of woe, of failure on Harvard’s part, a wistfulness for what might have been. What Carpenter reveals is the story of retired Harvard Librarian Andrews Norton and his impassioned campaign to secure the library of the first United States president, and his desire for the collection to remain accessible on American soil, even if that meant placing it at another institution. The article provides insight into the means by which 19th-century cultural institutions raised funds to purchase collections and the complex relationship between people and other people’s books. In our view, Norton’s sensibility tracks with the values Harvard Library holds today: that sources of knowledge and opportunities to learn should be made as widely available as possible and that materials ought to be where they can be accessed freely, whether at Harvard or elsewhere.

In the coming year, we’re preparing more articles for publication in HLB—some on well-known figures, some based in collections that have never been researched before, some by long-time contributors and some by current students. We’ll feature short and longer works from our archives that we hope will surprise, challenge, and amuse. We will also highlight new collections and projects, and capture some of the work Harvard Library is doing during the pandemic. Re-launching Harvard Library Bulletin in the final months of a fractious, unrelentingly tumultuous year has proved logistically challenging; however, in some ways, there is no better time than now.

Note: The image in this essay is one of hundreds on the Flickr page of Houghton Library's Modern Books and Manuscripts division.