Friday, April 19, 2024

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., circa 1930. (Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

There are letters from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere and Margaret Fuller in the archives and special collections of the Cambridge Public Library, and now one written in 1890 by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. joins them – and library staff is delighted, even if the letter itself is a bit of a dis.

The son of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., a prominent Cambridge author and physician, is most famous as a U.S. Supreme Court justice. But a dozen years before beginning his three-decade run on the Supreme Court in 1902, when still just a state court judge, Holmes was asked to sit on the library’s board of advisors, now known as the library’s board of trustees.

And he said no.

The letter doesn’t explain Holmes’ rejection. Possible reasons are being researched by library archivist Alyssa Pacy, said Muna Kangsen, its manager of communications, programs and events.

“We didn’t realize that Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was asked to sit on the library’s board,” Pacy said. “The date of the letter is significant because that’s when the library first opened in its current location at 449 Broadway [and] there was an effort by the library’s board of advisors to recruit prominent individuals with ties to Cambridge to help guide the library’s mission and build a world-class collection for its citizens.”

The letter – acquired with support from the Cambridge Public Library Foundation – now resides in the Cambridge Public Library’s Archives and Special Collections, where it has been preserved to archival standards. Director of libraries Maria McCauley is excited by it, though surely her predecessor in 1890 was not.

“This is an amazing piece of the city, the library and the country’s history,” McCauley said. “It is an honor that the Cambridge Room is now the repository of this important document.”

Holmes’ letter, along with those from Washington, Jefferson, Revere and Fuller, will be featured in a lecture on “American Treasures from the Cambridge Public Library’s Archives and Special Collections” by Drew Griffin, the library’s senior librarian in adult services. The virtual lecture is set for noon May 13, part of the Lunchtime Lectures from the Cambridge Room series. Registration is required.

This post took significant amounts of material from a press release.