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Backstory and Context
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Though the Harvard-Yenching Library was not founded until 1931, the central Harvard University Library was founded in 1638 making it the oldest university library in the United States. The university’s collection was begun when Puritan minister John Harvard donated a 260-piece collection to the young Harvard College. Now containing 10 million items across a growing network of libraries, the Harvard University Library system has become a major research center.
The Harvard-Yenching Library is a collection of materials from and about East Asian countries and cultures. In 1879, the university began offering instruction on the Chinese language and invited scholar Ko K'un-hua to serve as the first Chinese language instructor. K’un-hua brought a collection of Chinese texts with him which he donated to the library, becoming the first East Asian volumes at the university. By 1927, the collection had grown substantially and it became necessary for the university to hire its first East Asian librarian to organize the material; former Harvard graduate student Alfred Kaiming Chiu who had moved to the United States from China to continue his education was appointed to the new role.
In 1928, the estate of inventor Charles Hall funded to the establishment of the Harvard-Yenching Institute to promote the study of East Asian countries and languages by students in the United States. A partnership was established with Harvard to fulfill the mission of the institute which now partners with many other universities. This partnership led to the development of what is now known as the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University in the 1930s. In 1931, the East Asian collections were removed from the central Widener Library to become the Harvard-Yenching Library which is a joint operation by the university and the institute. Librarian Chiu continued to work with the collections until 1964 and developed the Harvard-Yenching Classification System for works written in Chinese and Japanese. Chiu’s system has been incredibly influential and was used at Harvard for forty years.
Today the Harvard-Yenching Library has grown to house 1.3 million items with works in many languages including Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Tibetan, Manchu, and Mongolian in addition to works in western languages. The collection features many rare items including rare books, artwork, photographs, and other artifacts which are held in the library’s special collections department. In recent years the library has begun digitizing the collection and making many pieces available to the public through online galleries.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Harvard University Library, Encyclopedia Britannica. March 12th 2019. Accessed May 21st 2020. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Harvard-University-Library.
Gewertz, Ken. Yenching: The singular history of a singular library, Internet Archive. October 30th 2003. Accessed May 21st 2020. https://web.archive.org/web/20061211200527/http:/www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2003/10.30/19-yenching.html.
History of The Harvard-Yenching Institute, Harvard-Yenching Institute. Accessed May 21st 2020. https://harvard-yenching.org/history.
Tang, Ke. The Harvard-Yenching Library, by the numbers, The Harvard Gazette. July 10th 2018. Accessed May 21st 2020. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/07/the-harvard-yenching-library-by-the-numbers/.