Since September, the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino has been commemorating its first century of existence with special exhibits, performances, lectures and other events across its 120-acre campus. As part of that ongoing centennial celebration, next Thursday, Feb. 6, will see the debut of “Why It Matters” under the President’s Series banner, with Huntington President Karen R. Lawrence and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden taking up the question of archives and libraries — why they exist, what they do, and why that work is important.
It’s not a trivial topic or mere prompt for self-congratulation in the 21st century, when virtually anything seems available online. Yet according to the Huntington, which has digitized considerable material, over 1,700 researchers from around the world do work at its library each year. More than 11 million items from the past millennium comprise its archives, which include a Gutenberg Bible, the Ellesmere Chaucer, and the papers of Pasadena-raised science fiction writer Octavia Butler. (According to Lawrence, Butler’s is “the most consulted collection” in the library’s reading room.) The Huntington’s art and botanical collections are open to the public, but only a fraction of the library’s holdings are on public display.
Unlike community libraries, the Huntington is a research library to which researchers, or “readers,” apply — mostly academic scholars, historians and authors. Hilary Mantel, for example, conducted crucial research for her historical novel “Wolf Hall”; she dedicated the book to Huntington curator emerita of British historical manuscripts Mary Robertson. Local journalist Miriam Pawel consulted valuable primary resources at the library while writing her acclaimed book “The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation.”
“Our mission is both scholarly and educational,” Lawrence acknowledges. “One of the things that ‘Why It Matters’ will also consider as it goes forward is how artists and writers make use of the collection to produce new work.”
“It’s very important,” she adds, “to have Q&A from the audience,” to broaden the exchange of ideas. She is also looking forward to discussing access, why records matter, and how libraries have changed with Hayden, who is the first woman and the first African American appointed to be Librarian of Congress, and who brought extensive public library experience to the post.
“Some of the roles that libraries play now in the country are different from what they used to be,” Lawrence notes. “They’re not all about books anymore; they’re about community. And refuge.”
Libraries have not been a peripheral concern for Lawrence, who has been president of the Huntington since September 2018. The author of two books about Irish author James Joyce’s work, she holds degrees from Yale, Tufts and Columbia, and previously served as president of Sarah Lawrence College in New York for 10 years. Prior to that she was dean of UC Irvine’s School of Humanities.
At the next “Why It Matters” discussion, on Feb. 27, she’ll discuss history with former Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust, a Civil War historian. Per Lawrence, they will also talk about “why the study of the humanities and liberal arts and science and education” is relevant.
“The humanities as a lens on science and tech is crucial,” she says, referencing the Caltech-Huntington Advanced Research Institute in the History of Science and Technology announced last March. “History shows that it’s not just computers that create new ways of thinking, anxieties about technology, and keeping up in information. … Putting things in historical context, or in other narrative context, in science as well as in politics and policy, is a very useful way of understanding where we are today.”
The Huntington Library’s public-facing displays share pieces that, among other things, tell this region’s history from diverse community perspectives. In this polarized time, when a certain sector of the populace regards the humanities as elitist, what role can institutions like the Huntington play in preserving the public commons and bringing people together?
“Both in terms of preserving excellence and understanding that interesting discussions are valuable to the public, we can be a convener of important conversations where discourse is civil, unlike in many arenas,” Lawrence replies. “And where people get to really hear complicated ideas, but in language that is not jargon-laden or totally academic. To hear people who’ve studied these things, who don’t have all the answers but who want to engage in dialogue and are incredibly informative at the same time. We can make our tremendous resources available, relevant, and impactful on many different communities, to have everybody benefit from it.
“Henry Huntington was a visionary about how important the Pacific Rim, particularly Los Angeles and Southern California, would be as a cultural and business capital. I think that’s what the Huntington is about — the importance of cultures, not just one elitist culture, but bringing people together.”
“Why It Matters” with Huntington President Karen Lawrence and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden in Rothenberg Hall at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, 7:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 6; free but reservations required. Info: (626) 405-2100. Huntington.org