Publisher's Note

Thomas Hyry

Thomas Hyry is Florence Fearrington Librarian of Houghton Library and the Director of Arts and Special Collections of Harvard College Library.

Close-up of books on four shelves, in disarray.
William Henry Fox Talbot, “Scene in a Library [detail],” 1840. Salt print. Harrison D. Horblit Collection of Early Photography, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Relaunching Harvard Library Bulletin (HLB) as an online journal presents us with a paradox. As a publication, it is at once a vestige of earlier eras of academic librarianship and scholarly communication, while, in its online form, it will use new approaches and sensibilities to promoting collections—and scholarship based in them—that guide our work now two decades into the 21st century. HLB was founded in 1947 with the primary goals of publishing scholarship derived from and increasing awareness of Harvard libraries’ collections. These original goals remain central to HLB’s mission and ongoing vision even as we reinvent the journal to take a more contemporary and modern approach.

Houghton Library assumed responsibility for publishing Harvard Library Bulletin nearly 20 years ago at a moment when Harvard University Library (as it was called then) was shifting its emphasis to developing and implementing robust approaches to preserving and making accessible digital content. These were heady times for libraries and archives as the Web created new opportunities to expand previously unimaginable access to collections. As the priorities of the library evolved, our organizational structure changed along with it and Houghton was a logical choice to undertake publishing HLB. Houghton’s collections and the scholarship based on them had always been well represented in the journal; moreover, Houghton already had in place a strong publishing infrastructure, staff expertise, and other resources that could be harnessed for this task. 

Under Houghton stewardship, HLB continued to publish an impressive record of scholarship and a chronicle of newly acquired and discovered collections. In my own time at Harvard over the past six years, I would call attention to “Picturing Emerson: An Iconography”[1] as an especially fine example of HLB’s ongoing capacity to facilitate important scholarly contributions that can be made only by engaging with Harvard’s collections. Producing the journal took significant effort; for most of Houghton’s publishing tenure, staff with other pressing responsibilities also managed and edited HLB, dedicating many an evening and weekend to ensuring it maintained its trademark rigor and style.

But while the journal continued to publish high-quality scholarship, its impact diminished and narrowed. While earlier issues included announcements of and analyses about new acquisitions across Harvard’s library as a staple, this type of writing migrated to blogs and eventually other social media platforms hosted by individual repositories. A strong record of scholarly articles in the journal continued but was dominated by research performed in Houghton collections; as a result, awareness of the journal faded among other Harvard libraries—and their users and librarians.

A white man wearing a suit, tie, and glasses smiles in front of glass-front bookcases.
Thomas Hyry in the lobby of Houghton Library. Photo by Rose Lincoln, Harvard Staff Photographer.

More importantly, perusal of back issues of HLB reveal a journal preoccupied with white, male, and Eurocentric history and culture, and a publishing record that does not reflect the evolution we have seen in the academy at large to incorporate and include the history and culture of communities outside the traditional scholarly canon. Even while Houghton and other Harvard libraries have made concerted efforts to increase the diversity of our collections, programs, and audiences, HLB has lagged in publishing scholarship in these areas. As we relaunch, a central priority for HLB is to cover a wider and more diverse set of subjects and perspectives. Given the journal’s long history, this won’t happen overnight. However, changes to HLB’s Advisory Board to include Harvard Library representatives and faculty from a wider range of disciplines, as well as a culturally diverse editorial team of Houghton staff and Harvard students, will help in this area.

The past twenty years have seen a revolution in scholarly communication we can no longer ignore in which the notion of free, digital access to research as a right has become predominate.  University libraries everywhere now serve as advocates for open-access approaches to disseminating scholarship and it is reasonable to ask how Harvard Library could do this effectively while still utilizing a subscription-based model for its own journal. When produced as a print journal, HLB drew modest income from subscriptions but nowhere near enough to offset editing, publishing, and printing costs. These costs were fortunately underwritten by endowments dedicated to publishing HLB, which now provide us an opportunity to take a much more expansive approach to dissemination through our new digital infrastructure. Where we once used this funding to print and distribute paper copies of HLB to a relatively small number of paid subscribers, we have invested in the technology and staff essential to making the journal free to read and also free for authors to be published. Harvard President Larry Bacow has urged all of us at the university to consider how to make a bigger impact outside of our walls, and Martha Whitehead, Vice President for the Harvard Library and Roy E. Larson Librarian for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, has led the development and articulation of a vision to “advance open knowledge.” As an online and open-access publication, Harvard Library Bulletin will now be free and accessible to anyone in the world with access to the internet, which we expect will broaden and deepen its audience and impact.

As we catch up with technologies implemented over the past few decades, HLB will also be well-positioned to experiment. Research has evolved and expanded to incorporate a dizzying array of digital tools and computational methods that have opened up new frontiers of analysis; yet, there remains a persistent challenge related to how we will capture and preserve over time the output of digital scholarship. While not part of our earliest stages of the relaunch, we anticipate HLB will expand beyond the scholarly article to serve as a platform for hosting new types of scholarship within its first year. 

Finally, libraries play an increasingly important role in university teaching missions and we anticipate that HLB will make direct contributions to student learning. Our model for publishing the journal includes roles for editorial assistants, positions that enable students to engage directly with the intellectual currents flowing through HLB while practicing important skills relevant to future careers in academia, publishing, and beyond. We will also see HLB become an important outlet for student research at the graduate and undergraduate level and we look forward to collaborating with faculty to nurture the intellectual development and contributions of our student body. 

Libraries demonstrate their value through the activities and programs they support and enable; journals demonstrate their value through the learning and enrichment they provide to readers. The relaunch of Harvard Library Bulletin provides a new opportunity for all of Harvard’s libraries and librarians to make readers more aware of newly acquired collections and research happening in their reading rooms and virtual spaces, and to contribute their own writing and scholarship to a vibrant publication. Harvard Library Bulletin will be a resource that inspires new possibilities for research and dissemination of knowledge based in collections across Harvard; publishes scholarship in a wide range of disciplines covering the diversity of human experience; connects Harvard collections with a broader range of constituents; and serves as a model for the role the library can play in the academic life of the university.


[1] Joel Myerson and Leslie Perrin Wilson, eds. “Picturing Emerson: An iconography.” Special issue, Harvard Library Bulletin NS 27, no. 1-2 (Spring-Summer 2016),